Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Are all humans human or some more human than others?"

Back in mid-2005, Foreign Policy magazine reported that when it came to coverage of the wars in the DRC, the US media devoted less than one story to the subject for every 10,000 dead Congolese. TV coverage was even worse: my back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that the network evening news programs devoted an average of one minute of TV time to the DRC for every 300,000 dead. Those numbers probably haven't improved by much since then, although there was a spate of decent coverage on Nkunda's rebellion in the NYT and WaPo in late November/early December. (But see this Columbia Journalism Review article complaining about that coverage.)

To the extent that attention has been paid to the DRC, it's come in the form of stand-alone reports on Nightline, or in Time or Newsweek. These reports always make a point of noting how little coverage the Congo gets, given the deadliness of its wars--as though this lack of coverage was the result of some inexplicable act of nature rather than an editorial decision made by the news organizations themselves. Because the Congo doesn't receive the sort of sustained, ongoing coverage of say, Iraq or the Middle East, even reasonably well-informed people have no idea that the DRC has been mired in a decade-long war, let alone that the number of dead from that war is approaching six million. (The IRC calculated 5.4 million had died by January 2008, with 40,000 more dying each month.)

But at least these outlets are doing something. The more elite, intellectual journals--the New Yorker, Harpers, the Atlantic, the New York Review, The New Republic, etcetera--have scarcely covered the war at all. For them, the war hardly exists, its victims passed over in a silence so complete it's as if they had never lived.

The scale of the wrongs the Congolese people have suffered tends to extinguish one's capacity for outrage. Which is why so few of the people who care about these issues ever raise our voices: even we sometimes doubt their importance. Still, every once in a while, the gap between the depth of the crisis and the world's indifference to it becomes maddening. Recently, for example, Israel's invasion of Gaza commanded international attention and galvanized the capitols of the United States and Europe. It takes nothing away from the Palestinians' suffering to note that had one-tenth of that level of attention been paid last month to the DRC, it's likely the Europeans would have sent that stabilizing force to the Kivus that Ban Ki-moon asked for. That force could very well have prevented the Christmas day massacre of 620 people by the LRA in the Congo's far north, another sad little event that went all-but unreported. And their presence would certainly have precluded this latest invasion.

The world is what it is. And the Middle East is always more newsworthy than Africa. But now the Congolese and Rwandans have sealed off an area to hunt for ex-genocidaires, and who knows what punishment they will inflict on the local population. Forty years ago, activists bemoaned the world's indifference to Biafra, wondering if its plight would have received more attention had the victims been white. And Biafra was a cause celebre compared to today's Congo!

In truth, the episodic media attention Africa has received in the West has largely been a function of how graphic its crises have been--and how accessible they were to Western photographers. The kwashiokor victims of Biafra in 1968-69, the dessicated cattle of the Sahel in 1972-73, the vast refugee camps of Ethiopia in 1984, the Sudan famine a decade later.

Without pictures, how will the great powers be moved to act? Cut off, culturally and geographically remote, victims of a war that even the experts find confusing (unlike the happy dead of genocidal Darfur), the people of North Kivu count for nothing. They have no claim on our attention. "The world is what it is. Men who have nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." More and more, Naipaul's words are beginning to sound like a prophecy rather than a warning. Some of us are indeed more human than others.

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