In Congo, 1,000 die per day: Why isn't it a media story?
BRUSSELS — It's a maxim that what people aren't talking about is always a favorite topic of conversation. But it will make your head spin when applied to the media and the most deadly conflict in the world today. Western media generally do not cover the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but a media story is currently developing around the Congo - focusing, paradoxically, on how the conflict is not a media story.
I've lost count of how many journalists in the recent weeks have asked me, "Why aren't the media covering the Congo?"
With an estimated 1,000 people dying there every day as a result of hunger and disease caused by war, it is an appropriate question. But the extent of this coverage of noncoverage is reaching the absurd: print, radio, TV, Internet - they all want to know why they themselves are not writing articles and broadcasting programs about the Congo.
And it is not just me noticing this. In March, Reuters even held a seminar on "forgotten crises," at which the Congo topped the list, and on BBC World Service the other day, I heard a newscaster ask: "Shouldn't this be getting more attention?"
Indeed. What the world media are missing is one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II: 3.8 million people have died in the Congo since 1998, dwarfing not only the biggest of natural catastrophes, such as December's South Asia tsunami, but also other manmade horrors, such as Darfur.
Congo's situation is complicated - any war on such a scale would be - but the outlines of the current stage of the conflict are straightforward enough for any journalist to summarize.
After four years of civil war (a free-for-all in which eight neighboring countries played a part) a transitional government was established in Kinshasa, the capital, in 2003. Since then, the warlords-turned-politicians who dominate the transition, each of whom still maintains his own militia, have vied for political advantage and access to the country's vast economic resources. None is above using violence as a means to stay in power and resist the integration of the country, and that violence looks set to get worse in the run-up to elections, technically slated for this month, though certain now to be postponed - a delay that in itself may cause significant unrest.
The deadly game has one particularly poisonous wild card: the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a key rebel group in the eastern Congo that regularly attacks civilians. Because the FDLR has its origins in the Hutu extremists who slaughtered 800,000 people in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Rwanda has a pretext to invade its neighbor, which it has done at least twice in recent years and threatened to do again in April - a move that would undermine Congo's fragile transition and could reignite a regional war.
With so many dying and so much at stake, it is simply astounding that Congo isn't in the newspapers and on nightly news regularly. Even a nonlethal car bombing in Iraq or a kidnapping in Afghanistan gets more Western media coverage in a day than Congo gets in a typical month of 30,000 dead. So much for the old TV news editors' saw, "If it bleeds, it leads."
When the question is turned around - or pointed in the proper direction - and I ask the media why they are not covering the Congo, journalists usually respond with a sigh or a shrug. Field-hardened correspondents often tell me they'd like to go but can't convince their editors.
News editors have long assumed "no one is interested in Africa," supposing their audience sees only hopeless African problems eternally defying solution and thus not worth attention.
But solutions do exist for Congo: The linchpin to resolving the conflict is the creation of a unified and effective national army and the disarmament of the remaining ragtag forces that are the source of so much suffering.
Both the Congolese Transitional Government and the Rwandan government are heavily dependent on outside aid, so if the international community would more closely condition its support on such concrete measures, it could bolster the transition process and decisively advance peace in the region. Sadly, such stories of potential solutions are no more reported in the Western media than stories of the country's current despair.
Somewhat encouragingly, however, the old assumption about a lack of interest in Africa seems to be breaking down now. A new Zogby poll, conducted for the International Crisis Group, has revealed that 53 percent of Americans think the US doesn't pay enough attention to the problems of Africa. Darfur has managed to capture strong interest throughout the Western world, even inspiring grass-roots campaigns with extensive participation.
Though the tsunami hit only a small part of Africa, the tsunami story has turned traditional news wisdom on its head in a similar way: surprising as it may seem to some news executives, people actually do care. Readers and viewers actually will be captivated by - and will even engage with - distant humanitarian disasters when they know about them.
This is why the current coverage of Congo's noncoverage actually leaves me optimistic that the country might be the next distant disaster to capture broad media attention.
The fact that so many journalists are now asking why the media aren't covering the Congo suggests we are coming to some kind of tipping point. Once they turn the question on themselves, the buzz will, let's hope, move on from the lack of coverage and start being the story itself.
• Andrew Stroehlein is media director for the International Crisis Group.