In August 2009, around the time I still believed myself to be sane, I interviewed Professor Norman Finkelstein while he visited South Africa on a speaking tour. I was buoyed by the curious combination of nervousness and confidence that only the young and stupid can attest to. Finkelstein had, just months before that, made headlines for losing tenure at the university where he taught owing to his views on Israel. As I spoke to Finkelstein, about Gandhi, colonialism and the legacy of the Holocaust in his own family, I also asked him how he responded to observations that conflict in Middle East was apportioned too much media coverage. What about the Congo, where more than 1,000 people were killed in December 2008 – around the same time as Israel’s Operation Cast Lead? Why does Gaza get more attention than the Congo?
Finkelstein was pensive in response. He said he didn’t know how to answer a question like that. “I don’t have an easy answer about focusing on one and not the other,” he said. “It is about who holds the power [to shape the narrative] but [the Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is also the longest occupation in the modern world.
“This thing just goes on and on and on.”
Three years on, I no longer lay claim to sanity – I sleep too little to qualify – but these same niggling questions about a jaundiced media focus are spilling out in heated verbiage across the world. And it says something about our collective failure as a world that three years on we’re once more talking about Gaza and Goma. These things really do go on and on and on.
On Sunday, British columnist Ian Birrell noted that coverage of the recent conflict in Gaza had eclipsed another deadly conflict happening simultaneously in the eastern Congo.
Birrell described the Democratic Republic of Congo as a “scene of massacres, of mass rape, of children forced to fight, of families fleeing in fear again and again, so many sordid events that rarely make the headlines.”
“It can seem a conflict of crushing complexity rooted in thorny issues of identity and race, involving murderous militias with an alphabet of acronyms and savagely exploited by grasping outsiders. But consider one simple fact: right now, there is the risk of another round breaking out in the deadliest conflict since the Second World War,” he wrote.
Birrell is not alone in his sombre assessment. Others describe the situation in eastern Congo as “the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.” The charge of a lack of media attention is also not unfounded. Since 1999, when Doctors without Borders first began issuing its top 10 underreported humanitarian crises in the world, the DRC has featured nearly every year.
Just over one week of bombing in Gaza and everybody was up in arms. There were rallies and protests right across the world. In the media, pages and pages of reportage, analyses and testimony. Hundreds of journalists made the trip into Gaza to record first-hand the death and destruction. Together with them, the reports of ordinary Palestinians on social media lent us some clues of the scale of human tragedy unfolding in the homes, the media offices and the refugee camps in Gaza.
And then there’s the Congo.
In the last week, rebels from the M23 group humiliated Congolese troops, taking the town of Goma and vowing to press on to Kinshasa, the capital. In the wake of the rebel victory, an all too familiar cycle of unease, reports of abuse at the hands of militia and the threat of a worsening humanitarian situation.
Two of my friends are currently tramping around Goma wielding recorders and cameras, doing their bit to bring the crisis there to the attention of the world. It’s not that what’s happening there is going altogether unreported. All the major wires carry updates on the situation several times a day. The crisis is certainly not being ignored. It just is not exciting the same kind of fevered attention that Gaza did.
When superstorm Sandy ripped through the Caribbean and then the east coast of the US last month, many media analysts complained that coverage of the hurricane was overwhelmingly skewed in favour of how it affected Americans. No matter that people in Cuba and Haiti as equal citizens of the world also braced the hurricane and also suffered loss and a disruption to their lives, it was the effect of the storm on the US that filled the world’s media. Some analysts and observers of American dominance on the rest of us meek creatures used the asymmetry in media coverage of the storm in the US and outside as the US as proof of the warped focus of global media.
Others, however, said the skewed coverage was just a natural consequence of news wires and major news broadcaster being either American-owned or heavily invested in the comings and goings of Uncle Sam. If the Caribbean owned media platforms with global reach, it would be their plight we would be following.
Borrowing from that logic, then, if as Africans we had a broadcaster, or news service with a global reach, we would be able to influence the world’s news agenda with our own news values instead of relying on foreign correspondents to do the job for us.
South Africans, humble as we are, routinely refer to our country as the gateway to Africa. In the sanitised halls of conferences and other such gabfests we’re told that South Africa’s economic prosperity depends on extending outwards to the rest of Africa. For every one dollar invested in South Africa, 40 cents makes its way across our border. Africa, we like to think, begins here.
Yet as the purported doorway to a whole continent, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has hardly registered a blip on our radar.
We’ve got 99 problems and some Congolese kerfuffle ain’t one of them. We really are mired in our own set of unhappy circumstances. And we don’t really have enough attention to devote to problems with little bearing on our immediate futures, but even in the birdcage of our insularity, the DRC ought to feature more prominently.
There’s the little matter of some 2,000 peacekeepers from the South African National Defence Force stationed as peacekeepers in Goma. And despite the ambiguity of the SANDF’s communication department, two South African soldiers have been injured in the last week there. They could have been injured in a harmless game of soccer or they could have been injured in clashes with rebels, who knows? But if the lives of Congolese nationals don’t quite rouse us to the point of attention, then perhaps South African lives may. Some 2,000 South Africans are caught in this conflict and we don’t seem to care much.
And it’s not just the troops that are caught up here. There are South African investments in the DRC. There’s the Inga Dam project that President Zuma signed off on last year, that’s supposed to bring us together, the DRC and South Africa, in mutual need of each other. There’s also our penchant to represent the entire continent every time our politicians speak on a global platform. We are Africa and Africa is us – at least that’s what the theory is.
The reality, however, is far from that.
From Gaza to Goma, what we can see is an utter failure to move beyond the safety of self-interest, because at the end of it all, if media coverage of the plight of Palestinians or Gaza, or the Congolese in eastern DRC really did move us, would we actually be allowing these violations of our humanity to continue? DM
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