For many of us the hourly news reports showing the horrific slaughter and devastation of the Israeli attack on Gaza is still very much fresh in our minds. Daily coverage on TV, radio and news media with endless analysis, pundits as well as live reports. At some point in the war I remember thinking how fickle is the news media as by the end of the 3rd week, reports had dwindled to a few hours a day, a few articles a day from a height of almost continuous cover in the early days. I began to think about the amount of time devoted to these and other Middle Eastern wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan compared to the coverage of wars in Africa such as the DRC, Somalia and Darfur. I came across a site called “Stealth Conflicts” which is based on the book of the same name by Virgil Hawkins. Stealth conflicts are those conflicts which remain marginal in relation to the overall agenda of the various industrial complexes that constitute global capital — the media, academia, NGOs, policy makers and so on.
Perception defines our reality. Where access to information that may enhance our perception is limited, the reality we see becomes distorted and warped. Our view of the state of armed conflict in the world today is one of the most unfortunate victims of such distortion. In spite of supposedly unprecedented access to information, the information presented to us on conflicts occurring throughout the world is so skewed that the reality is almost unrecognisable..
This is particularly true of the most conflict-torn region of the world — Africa, which has produced more than 90 percent of the conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War. Despite the scale of the human suffering, it seems that Western-centric consciousness (and outrage) ends at the Suez Canal.
The author specifically mentions the DRC which has seen continued and unprecedented levels of violence dating back to the colonial occupation by Belgian through to independence and the murder of Patrice Lumumba and then on till today. In the past 10 years alone there have been 6 million conflict related deaths and millions of rapes in the country.
Six million are dead in the last ten years, 1,200 people die every day, unspeakable crimes against women’s bodies go unreported, and the 1.2 million innocents in refugee camps cannot afford the time to wait for history’s analysis of the reasons behind their despair and misery. More than 2,000 rape cases were recorded last month alone in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s violent North Kivu province.
To fully grasp the levels of conflict and violence set against the media coverage, Hawkins produced a series of maps and graphs.
BBC reportage on Africa at 9% compares to the New York Times 7%, CNN 6%, La Monde 9% [the figures are all for 2000] We can now see the distortion between the number of conflict related deaths and the amount of time given to these conflicts by the media. Hawkins rightly points out that conflict related deaths are not the only factors we should give to levels of media reportage and the figures are cumulative. Nonetheless the distortion remains and is a huge one.
The conflict in the Sudan (which has resulted in more than 2 million deaths since 1983), for example, remains a very low priority on the policy agenda, and is totally absent from the media agenda. The later stages of the conflict and historic peace in Angola went by virtually unnoticed and unsupported. Other major conflicts, such as those in Algeria and the Republic of the Congo, are also almost completely ignored. Prolonged conflict in Liberia was briefly noticed only when rebels had already entered Monrovia and the question of possible US involvement was raised. Similarly, Burundi’s conflict received fleeting attention when Nelson Mandela (with celebrity status in the West) took on the role of mediator. While the USA, UK and Australia were invading Iraq, a democracy in the Central African Republic fell unnoticed, overthrown by an armed rebellion. These are just a few examples of conflicts that are routinely marginalized and ignored.
But it is not just that media coverage is unequal and unrepresentative that is problematic. The question remains as to why some conflicts are given priority and more significance than others. Secondly it is not just bombs and guns that kill people during war. People are killed by hunger, lack of medical care, destruction of homes and exposure to elements and so on. In other words by stealth. The irony is that in many cases, the longer the war and the more horrific it becomes, the less it remains on the media radar or “international consciousness”.
The truth is that wars such as in the DRC and Somalia are less news worthy because they are complex — in an age of media minimalism and over simplification and the need to bullet point events. Secondly the importance of the visual is lost as these are not wars with planes dropping bombs and people and buildings being blown up as in Gaza and Lebanon. It requires time and effort to present the war in the DRC in it’s reality. And the possibility of a racist overtones which are excused or explained as “compassion fatigue” must be considered. If we then look at the levels of humanitarian assistance then this possibility becomes clearer. For example in 2003, the DRC received $349 million represent ting a four and half year figure. In contrast East Timor received $183 million for 1 year, SE Europe $1,493 over 4 years and Afghanistan, $1741 millions over one and half years.