The number of deaths, refugees and internally displaced people due to the conflicts and civil wars in Africa is astounding. If these statistics were scaled down to proportion and occurred in Europe, the situation would be called World War III by the media. The rest of the world would rush to defuse and mediate the situation, and the mainstream Western media would provide in-depth coverage. In terms of numbers of people who have been displaced and killed, Africa has been largely ignored by the media when compared to the coverage of fomenting tensions and following crises of geographical locations like Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Kosovo.
In one study, it was shown that 88 percent of the conflict-related deaths occur in Africa, but it did not even figure into 10 percent of the coverage by mainstream Western media outlets. The study’s author, Virgil Hawkins, is a former NGO worker in Asia and Africa and a current associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, as well as a research associate at the University of the Free State, South Africa. In Hawkins’ book Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence Is Ignored, he declares it his mission “to shed light on…the mechanisms that are behind [these conflicts’] marginalization.”
The book features a set of maps called New World Maps that are designed to give readers a “fresh perspective on the way things are, and the way they are shown to us.” They use conflict-related deaths as the parameter for size. Other maps depict the way various media outlets (CNN, BBC, New York Times, Le Monde, Yomiuri) perceive the world. Hawkins notes that the purpose of these maps is “not to suggest that levels of media coverage should be proportionate to the…sheer scale of a conflict (death toll),” although she says they should certainly be a factor.
Why is the media coverage, for example, of conflicts in Nigeria and the Central African Republic important to countries in the West that do not appear to be involved in them? Anup Shah, author and owner of the Global Issues website, offers some answers to that question. Shah points out that simplistic views, at worst, are racist, whether intentional or not, and at best, offer no platform on how to move forward.
Hawkins says his research led him to the quick and obvious fact that those conflicts that have dominated the agendas of people in a position to respond–such as policymakers, the public, the media, and academia–are often small in scale in comparison to many of those that have consistently failed to attract attention. The issues need to be put in front of people who are, as Hawkins says, “in a position to respond.” Countries such as those in the West have direct and indirect influence when it comes to international affairs. And finally, the opposite is just as true–all countries have direct and indirect effects on all other countries. To understand this best, Shah provides a quotation from J. Brian Atwood, the former head of U.S. foreign aid policy: “Failed states threaten our nation. They cost us too much…They destabilize other nations. They…deny us economic opportunity in the largest new marketplace — the developing world.”
The media tends to ignore the conflicts in Africa or oversimplify them. Provocative images abound, but conflict analysis is lacking. There is little understanding how monetary aid both helps and hinders Africa, and the issue is not being addressed enough by mainstream Western media, nor are the reasons for Africa’s exportation of crops despite its persistent famine and hunger. As Hawkins says, “The marginalization of these conflicts is the result of a series of deliberate choices on the part of those in a position to respond.” The media, in large part, chooses to respond inadequately to the conflict in Africa. In turn, its response affects the present and future of those conflicts.
By Donna Westlund