New Internationalist

Stealth wars

For many of us, the hourly news reports showing the horrific slaughter and devastation of the Israeli attack on Gaza are still very fresh in our minds: the daily coverage on TV, the radio and news media, the live reports and the endless analysis by pundits. At some point during the Israeli offensive I remember thinking how fickle the news media is: the almost continuous news coverage seen at the outset had dwindled to just a few reports a day by the end of the third week. But I then began to think about the amount of time devoted overall to these and other Middle Eastern wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to the coverage of wars in Africa such as those in the DRC and Darfur. Like all good bloggers I began a series of searches but came up with nothing. I forgot about it until one day, as I was casually surfing from link to link, 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 unrecognizable. This is particularly true of the most conflict-torn region of the world - Africa - which has produced more than 90 per cent of 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 Democratic Republic of Congo, which has seen continued and unprecedented levels of violence, from the time of Belgium's colonial occupation, through to independence and the murder of Patrice Lumumba. In the past 10 years alone there have been 6 million conflict-related deaths and millions of rapes.

According to one report, 'six million people have died in the last ten years. Every day, 1,200 people die and unspeakable crimes against women's bodies go unreported. 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 in one month alone in the Democratic Republic of Congo's violent North Kivu province.'

 Abandoned tank in Somalia

Photo by: Carl Montgomery under a CC Licence.

On the Stealth Conflict site, Hawkins shows the discrepancy between levels of conflict and violence and the media coverage of them. For example, although Africa has 88 per cent of the world's conflict-related deaths, only 9 per cent of the BBC's news coverage was dedicated to them in 2000. But even that was better than CNN (6 per cent). Although Hawkins rightly points out that conflict-related deaths are not the only factor we should bear in mind when looking at levels of media reportage, 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 DRC, 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 US, 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. And 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 the elements. 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 in the 'international consciousness'.

The truth is that wars such as those in the DRC and Somalia are less newsworthy because they are too complex for a media age in which minimalism and over-simplication are needed in order to bullet-point events. Secondly, the importance of the visual is lost: these are not wars with planes dropping bombs or people and buildings being blown up as in Gaza and Lebanon. It requires time and effort to present the war in the DRC in its reality. And then there is the possibility of racist overtones - often excused or explained away as 'compassion fatigue'. This becomes clearer if we look at recent levels of humanitarian assistance. For example by 2003, and following a four-and-a-half year-long appeal, the DRC had received $349 million. A three-month appeal raised $1 billion for Iraq. And Timor Leste received $180 million in 2000 alone - 15 times the amount raised for DRC in the same year.

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