Media short-sightedness is truly staggering
Reuters AlertNet, 9 March 2005
To find many of the world's "forgotten" humanitarian emergencies, one only need look at some of the world's forgotten conflicts. In some cases, it is truly staggering what the mainstream media are missing.
As an organisation working to prevent and reduce deadly conflict worldwide, the International Crisis Group spends a good deal of effort trying to bring international attention to the conflicts that cause so many avoidable humanitarian emergencies. For some conflicts this is easier than for others, especially over the last two or three years.
One television news producer we met in the U.S. summed the situation since spring 2003 this way: "Look, we've got three foreign news priorities these days: Iraq, Iraq and Iraq". And Iraq is not simply an American obsession: we've heard a similar refrain from news producers and newspaper editors again and again throughout Europe and elsewhere.
Of course, few would say Iraq doesn't deserve the top foreign news spot; it has been the main international news story not only because of its daily violence but also because of post-Saddam Iraq's long-term implications for the rest of the region.
Iraq is not the only story, however, as the average mass media consumer could almost be forgiven for thinking over the past two years. The world's obsession with Iraq has pushed to the margins many other scenes of mass violence.
One good example is Nepal, home of the deadliest conflict in Asia, with some 10,000 killed over the past few years. Before the coup on 1 February 2005, how often did television crews bother to cover the expanding Maoist insurgency there? How many articles did the Western press carry about the widespread human rights abuses and disappearances at the hands of the Royal Nepalese Army? Nepal has simply been off the radar screen of the world media, and even now, the coup story itself seems to have appeared only as a rapidly fading blip.
Another under-reported conflict is in Uganda, where the rebel Lord's Resistance Army -- half guerrilla movement, half cult -- has fought government forces and made repeated brutal raids against civilians, displacing 1.6 million people and forcing thousands of abducted children to serve as their rank-and-file soldiers. Uganda is now set to be the subject of the International Criminal Court's first full investigation into crimes against humanity. And the media coverage of this ongoing tragedy internationally? Almost nothing.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another long-standing conflict in Central Africa that gets very little international attention apart perhaps from a single story in the quality broadsheets when Rwanda threatens to invade its massive neighbour. This is a country, remember, where some three million people died as a result of the 1998-2000 war -- mostly due to the resulting hunger and disease -- and where the failure to demobilise former combatants and the failure to stick to the calendar of a transitional political process threaten the country with a return to all-out war. In fact, for the eastern part of the country, the war is still really going on, and the human cost of violence is reliably reported at 1000 deaths a day (in combatant deaths and indirect "excess" deaths due to the war). Still, the world media have by and large shown no interest in the Congo whatsoever.
And then there are the potential conflicts and humanitarian crises in Central Asia and the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus that could always hot up at any time. The lack of international attention in such places only allows the precursors of mass violence to continue festering. When things explode, foreign correspondents will no doubt be parachuted in to ask why no one saw this coming, when the truth is, quite a number of us in the international community have long been calling for more attention and more concerted effort to defuse the coming conflict. The media had simply chosen to point their cameras elsewhere.
No one should get the impression this is only a problem of the Western media; it is universal. The Arabic-language media, for example, have consistently ignored or under-reported the underlying causes of the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, and the massive humanitarian catastrophe that has resulted. With very few exceptions, the national television stations and even the freer international newspapers simply toe the Sudanese government's line, not mentioning at all Khartoum's strong backing of the Janjaweed militias who have destroyed hundreds of villages, killed tens of thousands of people, and driven millions more from their homes.
But the case of Darfur also makes clear the limits of media attention alone. In the Western world, the situation in Darfur is now relatively well-known: compared to one year ago, when news reports were only just a few threads, we now see the full fabric of Darfur's horrors on television and in print almost daily. This hard-won international attention has been essential for getting additional humanitarian relief into Darfur's IDP camps and the refugee camps in neighbouring Chad, but it has done nothing to stop the ongoing killing or return people to their homes. Three feeble U.N. Security Council resolutions over the past year applied no serious pressure on the government of Sudan to stop its support of those committing the most brutal atrocities.
There are clearly conflicts that deserve more international media than they get, but we also have to be realistic: sometimes, media attention is not enough.