Archive for Zimbabwe

Why Zimbabwe?

Posted in dictators, Zimbabwe with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 April, 2012 by Virgil

President Robert Mugabe. Photo by Gregg Carlstrom under a CC Licence

Africa may well be a continent that is routinely marginalized by most of the media in the outside world, but Zimbabwe is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Isolated murmurs in the Western media about democratic shortcomings in the 1990s gave way to much more substantive coverage in 2000 when President Robert Mugabe began pursuing aggressive land reforms that saw white farmers ejected from their land (a number were killed). Media interest in Zimbabwe continued to grow beyond this point, with coverage focusing largely on political turmoil and oppression, peaking (for the time being) with the controversial elections of 2008. On balance, few countries in Africa (perhaps only South Africa and Egypt) can match the levels of media coverage in Western countries devoted to Zimbabwe. But why the interest?

Coverage is, of course, to a large degree, a reflection of policy interest. The existence of a ‘free’ press notwithstanding, the media tend to take many of their cues on how to look at (and whether to look at) foreign policy issues from the policymakers in their ‘home’ countries. Zimbabwe is certainly not found wanting in this regard. It was the only African mention on Condoleeza Rice’s ‘outposts of tyranny’ list, and while red carpets are regularly rolled out for leaders with arguably worse democratic and human rights records than Zimbabwe, Mugabe is treated as a pariah. He is banned from travelling to the EU, for example, and the UK’s Prince Charles and former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have both found themselves in deep public relations trouble for shaking hands with Robert Mugabe, and were forced to make excuses (Prince Charles was ‘taken by surprise’ while Jack Straw claimed it was too dark to see with whom he was shaking hands). Zimbabwe appears to occupy a unique place in Western consciousness – a place reserved for those reviled as the ‘world’s worst dictators’.

Indeed, much has been made of Zimbabwe’s democratic shortcomings – the suppression of dissent, the intimidation of political opponents, and the rigging of elections. While these are certainly valid criticisms, the selectiveness with which countries are held to certain democratic standards naturally calls into question the motives of those making the assertions. The actions of regimes with considerably worse democratic records tend to be swept under the rug, or result in little more than a mild expression of criticism.

North Africa was a case in point (at least until the wave of the so-called ‘Arab spring’), but such double-standards are equally apparent in much of sub-Saharan Africa as well. Deaths associated with election-related violence have far outnumbered Zimbabwe in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, and yet none of these cases could compare with Zimbabwe in terms of levels of media concern and indignation. The same can be said in cases where ruling party control over the electoral process remains arguably tighter than that in Zimbabwe, such as Eritrea, Angola, Chad and Rwanda. For all of the intimidation and alleged rigging, in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, there was at least a sufficient degree of ‘freedom’ to allow the incumbent to lose the first round of the voting.

So then what are the real reasons behind the media interest? Western strategic and economic interests do not serve as particularly convincing explanations, considering that, relatively speaking, Zimbabwe does not appear to have a great deal to offer in this regard. It does have some diamonds and was once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, but in terms of size, population, geostrategic significance, resources and ease of access, for example, a country such as Nigeria – a regional power that accounts for as much as 20 percent of US oil imports – could be expected to attract considerably more attention. Yet in the first ten years of the new millennium, the amount of coverage the New York Times devoted to Zimbabwe was more than double the amount it devoted to Nigeria.

A much more credible explanation can be found in Mugabe’s refusal to play ball with powerful Western governments. His impassioned railings against the West, in perfect English, undoubtedly designed to help shore up support within Zimbabwe, certainly raise his ‘public enemy’ credentials in Western countries. It is also interesting that it took the expulsion and killing of white farmers (rather than the political oppression of the black population) for Zimbabwe to begin to take a prominent place on Western media agendas, this was a key trigger event for attention.

Zimbabwe is hardly a geostrategic threat to the West, but Mugabe’s badmouthing and attempts to whip up opposition to Western policies threaten to tarnish the image of certain Western countries. This cannot be ignored, and thus enhanced punitive measures focusing on ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ are typically employed. Mugabe remains one of the most popular ‘bad guys’ on the continent (despite Joseph Kony’s star rising) – a leader that people love to hate.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off, but is well worth a visit).

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The media, technology and Cote d’Ivoire

Posted in Cote d'Ivoire, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 26 March, 2011 by Virgil

In early March, security forces in Cote d’Ivoire opened fire on a group of women protestors at a demonstration in Abidjan, the commercial capital, killing seven of them and wounding many more. The events (including footage of military vehicles at the scene) were captured on a mobile phone camera and the footage was uploaded onto the internet.

There was some coverage in the English-language media of these events (there has been much more in the French media – Cote d’Ivoire was a French colony) and some expressions of outrage, but, relatively speaking, for a massacre of unarmed (no guns, stones or anything other than symbolic leaves) women by the security forces of an illegitimate government caught on camera, this did not get much attention.

There is, of course, much more to the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire than this particular massacre – more than 400 people have been killed and as many as one million displaced since the crisis started in November 2010 over the results of disputed elections. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, thought to have lost the elections, refuses to bow out, while the apparent winner, Alassane Ouattara, remains largely confined to a hotel. But the massacre of unarmed women caught on camera could have been a turning point of some kind in terms of the level of attention the conflict was able to attract and in terms of efforts aimed at it resolution. It wasn’t. The situation in Libya (the massacre happened before disaster struck in Japan) was dominating the news at the time and there was little room for anything else. Partly as a result, UN aid agencies are suffering from a dire shortage of funds for Cote d’Ivoire.

This leads us to the question of how far technology can really go in drawing attention to stealth conflicts and crises. Advances in information and communication technology carry with them untold potential for changes in the flow of information in the world. Potentially, information can be gathered from and delivered to anywhere in the world, and all with little more than a single mobile phone. And massive amounts of information are indeed moving in this way. These developments could conceivably have brought about major changes in terms of variety in the content of the news we consume. But the reality has been far less spectacular. The availability of images/evidence of large-scale human rights abuse alone does not necessarily translate into attention and indignation.

Oddly, the mainstream media, internet sources included, still huddles obsessively around the same one or two crises (pack journalism) and virtually ignores whatever may be happening in the rest of the world. Variety and diversity in terms of what crises are chosen for concentrated media coverage is in very short supply. Furthermore, the scale of the crisis (death toll or humanitarian suffering) usually has nothing to do with the choice the media collectively make – the priorities of the ‘home’ government are almost invariably a far greater consideration.

For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.

Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.

The Australian newspaper and conflict

Posted in Congo, Darfur, DRC, Israel-Palestine, media coverage, Zimbabwe with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 4 February, 2010 by Virgil

The following graph is a comparison of the levels of media coverage of certain conflicts and crises in The Australian newspaper – Israel-Palestine, Zimbabwe, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The numbers are the total word counts for all relevant articles on each conflict/crisis. On first glance, the coverage appears to be virtually the same for each.

Now, take a closer look at the periods of coverage measured. What these figures tell us is that 9 years of coverage by The Australian of the conflict in the DRC is roughly equivalent to 6 months of coverage of conflict in Darfur (as it began to attract attention in 2004), and to 1.5 months of coverage of the charged 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, and to 1 month of coverage of Israel-Palestine, when fighting broke out there in 2000. And let us not forget that the conflict in the DRC over this period was hundreds (at times thousands) of times deadlier than any of the other conflicts/crises at the time of the periods covered. Interestingly, we can see that Africa is not simply ignored across the board. Even within Africa, there is a huge gap between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – some conflicts are more ignored than others.

This should by no means be seen as a rare example of media choices skewed beyond any semblance of balance. I would say that this kind of media coverage is quite representative of other newspapers in the USA or UK, for example.

(This data was taken from research I conducted for an article in the journal Media, War & Conflict entitled ‘National interest or business interest: coverage of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in The Australian newspaper’. The article contains more juicy comparisons and analysis. You need a subscription to read the article (sorry), but if you have access to a university library online, you should be able to read it in full).

Whose world history?

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict analysis, Congo, dictators, DRC, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 1 March, 2009 by Virgil

The world’s deadliest conflict of our times – that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is not only being marginalized by the policymakers, the media and the public today, but it is also in danger of being marginalized by the history books of tomorrow. Keep in mind that the conflict in the DRC has involved nine countries over a battlefield the size of Western Europe, and has cost more than 5.4 million lives. Also keep in mind that an estimated 88 percent of the entire world’s conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War have occurred in Africa. Then pick up a ‘world’ history book (any will do) and see how much recent history of the DRC or Africa you find in its pages.

Here’s an example: Martin Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century. The chapter covering 1990 to 1999 (70 pages) contains 27 paragraphs on conflict and politics in Israel-Palestine, 15 on Kosovo and 11 on Northern Ireland, but only 1 paragraph each on Zaire and the DRC. Incredibly, the book mentions Angola (a conflict that cost as many as 800,000 lives in that period) only with a reference to the visit by Princess Diana of the UK to that country to support de-mining! The conflict itself apparently does not have any historical significance.

Another example is the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (revised and updated), edited by Geoffrey Parker. Looking inside the book reveals a subtitle for the book – The Triumph of the West – and this book indeed represents that very triumph. In the chronology provided in the book, the only African conflicts that have occurred since the end of World War II that can be found are the Algerian War of independence and Somalia’s conflict in the early 1990s. While the world’s deadliest conflicts (most notably those in the DRC, Sudan and Angola) are nowhere to be seen, there are entries instead for much smaller conflicts in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, Chechnya and Iraq – conflicts involving or of interest to the West. The sudden large-scale invasion of the DRC in 1998 by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, and the counterattack by forces from the DRC, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sudan and Chad is apparently not worthy of mention, yet the relocation of Osama Bin Laden in 1996 from Sudan to Afghanistan gets its own entry, as does Israel disabling the Syrian early warning defence system in 2007.

Similar Western-centric views of history can also be found in the highly subjective ‘selection’ of dictators. Diane Law’s The World’s Most Evil Dictators is a case in point. The two ‘most evil dictators’ selected for the period after the Cold War are Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). The selection of Robert Mugabe as a key dictator of the world is an odd one indeed – especially as of 2006, when the book was published. While Mugabe has certainly put a considerable amount of effort into manipulating election results, he at least holds elections – even in the 2008 elections, Mugabe ‘allowed’ himself to lose the first round of the elections. The label ‘dictator’ in this case is stretching the interpretation of the word. There are many world leaders that are far ahead of him in the running for the title of worst dictator. Mugabe’s first major ‘crime’ – the one that set him on the path to high-priority Western target – was his eviction of white farmers. A far milder and low-key place in history is reserved for absolute ‘dictators’ that are Western friendly – in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, and in African countries with much more questionable democratic credentials than Zimbabwe, and who have sparked so much more violence (see this post).

In many cases it seems that the writers of world history use the term ‘world’ in the same way as Western policymakers use the term ‘international community’ – selectively referring to limited parts of the world in a way that best suits their purposes and subjective perspectives of what, where and who in the world are to be deemed ‘important’.

I invite you to go through other ‘world’ history books that you have (or have access to), count the pages, paragraphs and references devoted to certain world events and certain world leaders to see if the world’s deadliest conflicts are getting the attention they deserve, or if they are in danger of being left out of our accounts of history. Write ups of your findings are welcome at Stealth Conflicts Forum. See the Stealth Conflicts book for a more detailed handling of this subject.

Big changes in the DRC (but who cares?)

Posted in conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 January, 2009 by Virgil

Over the past few months, major political and military developments have been witnessed in the world’s deadliest conflict of our times. Or should I say, barely witnessed. A number of developments that will significantly affect the course of the conflict and the peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been happening, but as usual, they have barely made any ripples in the mainstream news outside the region.

 

In the closing months of 2008, the Rwandan-backed rebel group in the DRC, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by Laurent Nkunda, began a series of offensives in eastern DRC, capturing vast swathes of territory, threatening to take the city of Goma, and began talking about liberating the entire country. Meanwhile, the DRC joined forces with former enemy Uganda and South Sudan, conducting military operations to hunt down Ugandan rebels based in the DRC, who responded with brutal force against civilians as they retreated. Then in late December, a split in the CNDP leadership emerged between leader Nkunda and General Bosco Ntaganda (also known as the ‘Terminator’), who has an arrest warrant against him from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers.

 

BBC)

Front lines (Map: BBC)

But perhaps the biggest development happened yesterday on 20 January, when Rwandan troops entered the DRC for a joint operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu militia whose leadership is linked to the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Just a few months ago, another war between Rwanda and the DRC would not have been all that surprising. The realization of a joint military operation between these two countries, with Rwandan troops entering DRC soil with permission, is a major step. Interestingly, the Rwandan forces, together with tanks and trucks full of ammunition, headed for the town of Ruthsuru – CNDP territory. This means a three-way operation by DRC government forces, the CNDP, and Rwandan troops against the FDLR. This represents a major change in the dynamics of the region. (Click here to keep up with what is going on.)

This is likely either a major step towards peace or a major step in a new phase of the conflict. This is the world’s deadliest conflict. Such developments deserve serious attention. They are getting very little. 

Takeshi Kuno)

CNDP rebel (Photo: Takeshi Kuno)

News of the Rwandan entry into the DRC and peace with the CNDP, for example, has been displaced by conflict in Gaza, the reaction to the inauguration of US President Obama in Kenya, the freeing of a kidnapped Greek shipping magnate, and China trying to stop the sale of artworks that it claims were once looted by Franco-British soldiers, among many others – anything will do. In fact, displaced is hardly the right word to use here. News of the DRC is generally not displaced, because its news value is treated as being so low in the first place that getting it on the news agenda is never easy, regardless of what else is happening in the world (and what is not).

  

A check of the World page of the New York Times website on 21 January 2009 reveals these headlines (from the top): ‘Debating the blame for reducing much of a village to rubble’ (Gaza), ‘Few Israelis near Gaza feel war achieved much Gaza’, ‘Israel completes withdrawal from Gaza’, and ‘Tensions in the Mideast reverberate in France’. That’s four articles straight on Gaza dominating the top, followed by ‘Obama promises the world a renewed America’, ‘U.S. secures new supply routes to Afghanistan’, ‘Thousands in Chechnya protest after lawyer is killed’, ‘Obama seeks halt to Guantanamo trials’, ‘China sees separatist threats’, and ‘Families file suit in Chinese tainted milk scandal’. One world briefing (103 words) on Rwandan troops crossing the border into the DRC can be found in the 16th article from the top.

 

A check of the World News page of the website of the Times (the UK newspaper) on 21 January reveals not a single article containing news on the developments in the DRC on the page at all. In fact, of the 32 articles on the page, 18 are related to the election of US President Obama, including a number of articles on the details of the inauguration ceremony and how the day went for the Obama children. There is not even a trace of the DRC on the Africa News page – word of Mrs. Mugabe hitting a reporter gets two articles here, and one article is given to hunting parties culling elephants in Zimbabwe.

 

A check of the main homepage of the CNN International website at the same time failed to turn up any articles on the DRC either. This page was instead thoroughly dominated by the US President’s inauguration (including an article on the waltzes the Obamas danced, followed by other news including the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a blow-up doll sex suspect arrested in Australia, and Manchester United losing its shirt sponsor. In the regional news towards the bottom of the page, the two items for Africa are: ‘A joke over breakfast with Desmond Tutu’ and ‘Zimbabwe power-sharing talks collapse’.

 

Of course these are only snapshots of the news presented by these media corporations. News does pop up every once in a while on developments in the world’s deadliest conflict, even if it is buried on page 12 as a news brief. But the way media corporations are showing such disregard for proportion, and attributing such low news value to such important events, choosing so many other stories (many trivial in the extreme) as news in their place, says something about the sad and sorry state of the media industry today.

Lansana who? The death of a ‘dictator’

Posted in dictators, Guinea with tags , , , , , , on 26 December, 2008 by Virgil

Diabetes did to the leader of Guinea (that country in Western Africa bordering better-known Liberia and Sierra Leone) what numerous opposition leaders and civil society movements had failed to do – remove him from power. President Lansana Conté of Guinea died on 23 December due to complications from the disease that he had battled for many years. He had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1984, and the iron fist continued until the end – the editor of a local newspaper was arrested just last week for publishing a photo of Conté struggling to stand up.

 

 

But to what extent is this president (and his actions) known outside Africa? Interestingly, at around the same time as Western policymakers and media corporations were speaking out in furious indignation against the suppression of an opposition movement by Robert Mugabe’s security forces in Zimbabwe, resulting in one death, the beating of the opposition leader and numerous arrests (in early 2007), they seemed to be by and large pretending not to notice the suppression of an opposition movement in Guinea, in which Conté’s security forces gunned down and arrested civil society representatives and students, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 people (see this report and this video).

 

One could assume that a large proportion of people in Western countries know who Robert Mugabe is and would not hesitate to label him a ‘dictator’. One wonders how many in the West even know who Lansana Conté was, let alone label him a ‘dictator’ – I would venture to suggest very few. Newspapers and news corporations have devoted copious amounts of attention to the democratic credentials of the Zimbabwean leader – long before the country’s economic woes became so glaringly obvious. They have maintained a virtual silence on the actions and democratic credentials of the Guinean leader. The New York Times, in an article it devoted to the death of Conté and the apparent coup by the military that followed, refrained from using the term ‘dictator’, opting instead for ‘strongman’. The same newspaper frequently associates the term ‘dictator’ with Mugabe in its numerous opinion pieces and editorials on the subject of Zimbabwe.

 

Pan-African News Wire)

After the coup (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

Being called a dictator is sometimes a little like being called a terrorist. It is a politically charged label that depends not as much on what you do, but rather on who you do it to (just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one man’s dictator is another man’s loyal ally and friend). For observers (outside policymakers or the media, for example), there is very little in the way of an objective evaluation of governance and admittedly, there is an awful lot of grey area – rigging elections happens in many countries at various levels, and the rule of law and checks and balances to power can be shaky in varying degrees.

 

The word ‘dictator’ is at times thrown around quite liberally – the key is whether or not the nasty label sticks. This often seems to depend largely on whether or not you are a friend or enemy of powerful Western leaders. Interestingly, some leaders who actually follow through with some of the elements of democratic process, holding elections, allowing opposition parties and parliaments (although rules are clearly bent, or the democratic process is, to varying degrees, abused, or at times rendered powerless), for example, can be labelled as ‘dictators’ by Western leaders and the media, with all of the indignation about the lack of democratic freedoms and the colourful descriptive language that goes with it (‘murderous regime’, ‘evil despot’, and/or ‘brutal tyrant’ just to name a few). Just ask Robert Mugabe or the late Slobodan Milosevic.

 

Being friends with powerful Western governments, on the other hand, is often like a free pass to exist as a full-blown dictatorship, with precious little in the way of scrutiny, criticism or censorship. Indignation (or colourful and emotive phrases like ‘brutal dictatorship’) is rarely heard in response to many ‘governments’ that don’t even bother with the appearance of something that resembles democratic process or the maintenance of basic human rights, in places like Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan, for example. The former leader of Turkmenistan (Saparmurat Niyazov), apart from arresting and torturing anyone resembling a political opponent, closed down all hospitals outside of the capital and built a powerful personality cult (building grand monuments to himself and renaming the months of the year after his parents). But his friendship with Western countries – largely based on natural gas reserves and his willingness to allow military bases for NATO during their attacks on Afghanistan – seemed to exempt him from any kind of meaningful censure.

 

In fact, being friends with powerful Western leaders often seems to pretty much guarantee a very convenient silence on the state of governance and democracy in one’s country – not only by the Western leaders themselves, but oddly enough also by the majority of Western media corporations, whose positions on foreign affairs issues seem to so frequently resemble those of the leaders in their countries. So what is it that made Conté and his actions so ignorable? What is the basis for the friendship between Guinea and powerful Western counties?

 

One clear answer is that Guinea happens to have the world’s largest reserves of bauxite – an ore that is processed into aluminium. It also has significant deposits of high-grade iron ore, gold, diamonds and some uranium. The mining of these resources is conducted under joint ventures by the government of Guinea and foreign multinational companies based in USA, Russia, Canada, UK, Australia and Switzerland, among others. Another answer is that Conté has maintained a relatively low profile on the international scene (apart from military involvement in conflicts in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone), supporting powerful Western leaders and their policies. This puts him in stark contrast to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who makes regular use of vocal railings in English against Western governments to help keep internal dissent at bay.

 

Conté lived and ruled Guinea behind a veil of silence that largely insulated him from unwanted outside attention and indignation. His death and its aftermath have made the news to a degree, but it remains to be seen if this will become any more than a brief blip on the radar. In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.

What’s death got to do with it?

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls with tags , , , , , , , , , on 13 December, 2008 by Virgil

There is a newsroom truism in the USA that “one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans”. Sounds pretty bad. But the reality is much much worse. For a start, from the perspective of the news media in the West, 500 Africans have nowhere near that kind of value. The death toll from conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is literally one thousand times greater than that in Israel-Palestine, yet it is the latter that is the object of far greater media coverage, if that is any indication of the news value of the two conflicts. The numbers of victims from conflict in Israel-Palestine are counted down to the last digit, and the intricacies and nuances of the conflict, political situation and peace process are almost obsessively analysed and presented. Death tolls from most African conflicts (if anyone bothers to count) are usually rounded off to the nearest one hundred thousand (at times the nearest million), and the conflicts are frequently brushed off and dismissed as being chaotic, or worthy of some vague pity or humanitarian concern, but rarely of any in-depth political analysis.

 

But news editors do not line up conflict death tolls and do division and multiplication to adjust the figures according to the region and skin colour of the victims when deciding which conflicts to cover and which to ignore. The reality is that the scale of a conflict has very little at all to do with whether a conflict gets the attention of the media or not. Other factors (like the political interest of key policymakers at home, skin colour, simplicity and sensationalism) appear to be the key determinants. Once a conflict is ‘chosen’, it becomes the centre of attention, at the expense of all other conflicts – however destructive they may be.

 

A conflict that had caused 2,000 deaths by late 1998 in Kosovo, for example, became seen as a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions that simply could not be ignored. Doing something about it was widely accepted as a moral responsibility – a pure case of ‘humanitarianism’. And yet at the same time, millions of human lives were being lost in Africa – the multinational invasion of the DRC was in full swing, brutal rebellions were wreaking havoc in Angola and Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia and Eritrea were engaged in heavy fighting over their border. Each of these conflicts alone was far worse than that in Kosovo. But humanitarian principles simply did not appear to apply to these humans.

 

This does not mean that conflict in Africa is ignored across the board. But even within Africa, the death toll has little to do with the levels of coverage. Darfur made a rare appearance on the radar of Western concern in 2004, rising to a relatively high position on the media agenda. This happened at a time when the known death toll from conflict there was still 80 times smaller than that in the DRC. Similarly, political violence in early 2007 in Zimbabwe resulting in one death and a number of arrests and beatings of political leaders became the object of relatively high levels of attention and indignation in the Western media. At almost exactly the same time, political protest in Guinea was put down by government forces that fired indiscriminately into crowds of protesters resulting in a total of 130 deaths and numerous arrests. Also at the same time, street battles between government and opposition forces in the capital of the DRC resulted in between 400 and 600 deaths, and resulted in the exile of the opposition leader. Yet this violence in Guinea and the DRC was virtually ignored by the Western media.

 

Could Zimbabwe’s ‘popularity’ (as the representative African bad guy) have something to do with Mugabe being a thorn in the side of powerful Western governments because of his railings (in fluent English mind you) against them? And could Guinea’s absence from the media radar have something to do with the fact that the government there is Western-friendly, and that Guinea is the world’s largest producer of bauxite (much of which is mined by Western multinational corporations)?

 

But why should supposedly ‘free’ media in powerful Western countries align themselves and their news values so closely with the governments of the countries in which they are based? Were they not supposed to be the watchdogs of the policymakers? Stay tuned…

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