22 November, 2012

The Other Conflict: Covering Eastern DRC

by Virgil Hawkins

Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts the world's deadliest conflict today, or that the current levels of violence are the worst seen there in the past five years. Whatever its status or state of affairs, the conflict, the country, and the region are going to struggle to attract any substantive levels of media coverage from the outside world.

This sad reality reflects entrenched patterns in terms of the various factors that editors and producers use to help them decide what they think is newsworthy and what is not. These include race, socioeconomic status and perceived national/political interests. Being poor, black and outside the range of vital national interests of the world's powerful countries certainly does not help. Central Africa's chances of getting attention are not good at the 'best' of times.

So it doesn't require much imagination to predict what will happen to media coverage when a major outbreak of violence in the DRC happens to coincide with a major outbreak of violence in a part of the world that is deemed as being exceptionally 'important'.

Since mid-November, this is precisely what has happened. Unfortunately for the people of eastern DRC (though perhaps fortunately for those leading the offensive and their backers), the rebel (M23) assault on, and capture of, the major city of Goma, has coincided almost perfectly with the conflict over Gaza. This has effectively ruled out the possibility of any substantive media-led concern, indignation or interest regarding the fate of eastern DRC and its people.

Let us first let the figures speak for themselves. The following graph shows the levels of coverage in the New York Times (including both online and print) in the one week leading up to the fall of Goma to the rebels.

In this one-week period, the New York Times produced, in response to the escalating conflict in the DRC, 2,947 words in 5 articles (none of which were front-page stories or editorials). For Israel-Palestine, it produced 48,711 words in 60 articles, including 12 front-page stories and 3 editorials. In terms of word count, the conflict in Israel-Palestine attracted 17 times more coverage than did the conflict in the DRC.

And this yawning gap in coverage, this terribly disproportionate level of interest, certainly does not just apply to the New York Times. It is a trend that applies to the news media globally, both online and off.

Any incidence of conflict in Israel-Palestine is automatically newsworthy, for a number of reasons, most importantly elite political interest in powerful Western countries. It is clear that factors such as the death toll or level of humanitarian suffering are unlikely to feature in a major way in the decisions in response to foreign conflict made by policymakers in these countries. But it is shameful that these factors do not feature either in decisions made by media gatekeepers regarding newsworthiness.

Is it too much to ask that the decision-makers in media corporations tone down their deference to elite interests a little, shake off some of the urge to ignore the plight of those whose skin and/or passports are of a different colour from their own, and take a new and fresh look at the state of the world?

20 November, 2012

Just the Bad News: Reporting on Peace Operations in the DRC

by Virgil Hawkins

“No news is good news” – so goes an old adage. But it does not necessarily apply to the reporting of conflict in Africa by media corporations from beyond the continent, for no news does not necessarily mean an absence of bad news. It often simply means that the media corporations have decided that the events on the continent (both good and bad) are not worthy of reporting.

By the same token, if a recent study by the author is any indication, on the not-so-common occasions that issues related to conflict and peace in Africa are reported, it is indeed the 'bad' news that gets the coverage. The study in question involved measuring the coverage by the New York Times of peace operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the course of the thirteen years since it was established. The coverage was measured by a word count. The results can be seen in the figure below.

New York Times' coverage of peace operations in the DRC (1999-2012)

There was some coverage of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) when it was established by the UN Security Council in 1999, and more in 2000, particularly as it encountered difficulties in deploying because of obstacles on the ground. But as conditions changed, allowing their deployment in full, and as the peacekeepers began fanning out across the country in early 2001, coverage virtually disappeared – good news simply wasn't news.

It would be two years before the New York Times would show any interest in covering the peace operations in the DRC again. This time, massacres in the Ituri district led to the possibility (and realization) of intervention by a small French-led European Union force. A combination of the massacres and the deployment of Western troops in response got the attention of the newspaper, but not for long. The EU force would only stay for three months (MONUC would remain), but coverage lasted for little more than one month – the situation had calmed in the town in which the forces were deployed. This was as concentrated as coverage of peace operations in the DRC would ever get.

More bad news – a scandal involving sexual abuse perpetrated by some peacekeepers – attracted a reasonable degree of attention more than a year later. Between 2008 and 2010, peacekeepers' failures to stop rebel advances, and their dubious collaboration with government troops accused of human rights abuses also was the object of some coverage, but not that much. Coverage has since flatlined.

Since peace operations began in the DRC, there is no question that there have been numerous negative occurrences worthy of reporting, but there have also been positive achievements made in helping keep a very fragile region from falling apart altogether. This also equally deserves our attention.

At the time of writing, rebels are at the gates of the eastern city of Goma again, and MONUC's successor, the UN Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) is using helicopter gunships in an attempt to halt their advance. We hope that the New York Times will not simply continue its tradition of reporting the bad news and little else. More importantly, we hope that further violence can be averted, leaving the newspaper with no more bad news to write about.

19 November, 2012

The Dismal State of South Africa's Political Leadership

by Hussein Solomon

Two news stories this week caught my eye and prompted my reflection on the state of political leadership in South Africa.

The first was the story of General David Petraeus who stepped down as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency following reports of his affair with his biographer. From all accounts, General Petraeus was not pushed out of his job and indeed President Obama did ask him to reconsider his resignation but it seems that Petraeus said that he exercised poor judgement and that he failed his own standards of right conduct.

The story of Petraeus stands in sharp contrast to our own sorry political leadership. Can one imagine President Jacob Zuma saying that he exercised poor judgement with his friendship of Schabir Shaikh or poor judgement in his sexual liaisons and was therefore stepping down? Of course, one cannot. In similar vein, can one imagine a senior ANC member like Tony Yengeni who has served time in jail to be too embarrassed to continue to hold political office and in the interests of his party and the country stepping out of the political and public limelight? The answer is also negative. Neither of these men have an ounce of moral credibility and neither have an ounce of patriotism to this country.

The second story emanates from Egypt. A tragic accident occurred when a train collided into a school bus resulting in the death of 49 children. The Minister of Transport and Communications immediately took responsibility and handed his resignation to the president who accepted it. This was followed by the resignation of the Head of Egypt’s Railway Authority. Neither of these gentlemen was pressured into resigning but both felt that the buck stopped with them. Both felt accountable for the deaths of these children.

Compare this with South Africa where our political mandarins do not even know the meaning of the word “accountability”. The Minister of Basic Education refuses to take political responsibility for not getting textbooks into schools on time. The Premier of Limpopo refuses to take responsibility for the fact that his province is a cesspool of corrupt tenderpreneurs. The ANC leadership in the Eastern Cape refuses to take responsibility for the fact that they simply cannot govern this province – from potholed roads, to appalling conditions in hospitals, to dysfunctional schools.

I am always amazed at the potential this great country of ours has. I am amazed at the teacher I came across who stayed on in the late afternoons to assist his weaker students with their studies. I am amazed at the medical doctor who offers his services free to the less fortunate. I am amazed at the resilience of South Africans generally in hard times and the fact that they can still smile and laugh. But unless our political leadership can exercise good judgement and are accountable for their actions, the potential of this country will never be realized.

07 November, 2012

Time to Put Africa Front and Centre, President Obama

by Hussein Solomon

US President Barrack Obama has been re-elected for a second term after a hard-fought electoral campaign. What are the implications for Africa? When Obama occupied the White House for the first time, there was an expectation in Africa that Obama, with his Kenyan ancestral roots, would do much for Africa. Sadly he was to disappoint.
Indeed, Africa was almost an after-thought for Obama in his first term in office. Consider the following: it was only in June 2012, five months ago, that the White House released an official African strategy. And whilst US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited 15 African countries in four separate trips, President Obama only managed to spend a measly twenty hours in Ghana in July 2009 where he gave a speech on democracy with no substantial follow-up.

To be sure, Africa was knocked off the radar screen in Washington by the ongoing Eurozone crisis, the rise of China, the Arab Spring, the Iran nuclear question and America’s own economic woes. Still, Obama’s Africa record pales into comparison if one considers his two predecessors’ engagement with the African continent.

President Bill Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) reduced trade barriers for more than 1800 products from the continent. This served to stimulate African economies which were good for Africa and the United States. Trade between the US and Africa tripled to over US $90 billion since 2000.

President George Bush’s Millennium Challenge initiative built on President Clinton’s AGOA and partnered with 13 countries on the continent in an effort to stimulate their economies. Bush’s efforts to curb malaria on the continent resulted in steep declines in African child mortality in several African countries. George Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR served to save the lives of 2,4 million Africans with HIV/AIDS.

In contrast, I can only think of only one major African success story for the Obama White House – Sudan. Vigorous diplomatic efforts prevented a return to war whilst assisting with the independence of South Sudan.

Here is my wish-list to President Obama in his second term. First and foremost foster more economic growth in Africa. Despite the fact that the continent is home of six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies, more needs to be done. After all seven out of ten Africans are living without electricity. Africa needs international assistance in these crucial areas.

Second, economic growth will not take place without peace. Peace will not be attained if the African Union’s Peace and Security structure remains deficient. The crisis in northern Mali, for instance, clearly demonstrates that the much vaunted African Standby Force (ASF) remains a paper tiger. President Obama, and more specifically, United States African Command, needs to greatly assist the ASF to make its vision a reality.

Third, given the fragility of many African states, the continent cannot afford a repeat of the Cold War – this time between Washington and Beijing as they fight for influence on the African continent. Consensus between the United States and China in their relations with Africa is absolutely crucial.

President Obama, it is time to put Africa front and centre in your second term.

01 November, 2012

Zuma vs Motlanthe: It Really Does not Matter!

by Hussein Solomon

As we approach Mangaung, I am being inundated by journalists enquiring about the current state of the leadership tussle within the ANC between President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. Would the sudden inflation of delegates from KwaZulu-Natal ensure a Zuma victory? Would Marikana and its aftermath harm the President’s standing? Would Ebrahim Harvey’s book on Motlanthe assist his campaign?

Frankly, I could not care less since whatever the outcome at Mangaung, it would not make any difference to the lives of ordinary South Africans. I do agree with most commentators that a President Motlanthe would lend the Union Buildings more gravitas. For instance, I do not see an artist like Brett Murray painting Motlanthe’s penis nor do I see cartoonist Zapiro drawing Motlanthe with a shower on his head. At the same time, I do not see, whatever the outcome of the leadership tussle, any substantive change emanating from Mangaung.

As I watch Obama and Romney slug it out in the final week of the US elections engaging each other on issues as disparate as their respective visions on US foreign policy and their plans to fix the stagnant US economy, I notice that this is what is lacking in the run-up to Mangaung. Zuma’s praise singers demand that he should be given a second term. Motlanthe’s supporters, meanwhile, believe that he will make a better president. What their respective policy platforms are to fix our moribund economy and reassure foreign investors (the South African economy lost 44 percent of foreign direct investment in the first half of 2012) we do not know. What their respective policy platforms are to restore public trust in the police services, in the midst of persistently high crime levels, we do not know. What their respective policy platforms are to deal with endemic corruption, we do not know. Indeed, ANC delegates are supposed to vote merely for or against a personality not a policy position. This is ridiculous. If anything describes the intellectual poverty of the ANC, this is it. It is also the most glaring reason why the ANC cannot govern South Africa.

Whilst President Zuma was always uniquely unsuited for the tasks of leading this nation, the issue which perturbs me most about Motlanthe is that he does not seem to be a strong enough personality given the challenges confronting the country. At no point has he decided to openly state that he wished to run for the highest office of the land. He prefers, it seems, to want to lead from behind – which is no leadership at all. As Secretary-General of the ANC he would bemoan the disarray of the branches but did nothing to crack the whip and fix the problem. South Africans need strong leadership. We need a President who would tackle the problems confronting the mining industry much more forcefully. We need a President who would call the Minister of Basic Education and say, “Angie, I am tired of your excuses. The state of our schools is a disgrace. I do not want someone who cannot get textbooks into schools on time in my cabinet. Our children deserve better. You are fired!” This, of course, would never happen in the ANC under a Zuma or Motlanthe presidency.

Sadly the choice for ANC delegates at Mangaung is between the fatally flawed incumbent and the rather weak and mediocre Motlanthe – both of which have no solutions to the multiple crises confronting South Africa. This is the real tragedy for a country which has so much potential.