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Unreported War – DR Congo

March 16, 2009

I recently had a chat with Lydia Chavez, a former NY Times correspondent who is now professor at Berkeley.  I first drew an outline of what was happening in DR Congo; something she had little idea about and was truly horrified.  Then I told her I was comparing the Christmas Massacre, which was:

the brutal slaughter of more than 865 civilians and the abduction of at least 160 children between December 24, 2008, and January 17 in the Haute Uele district of Congo. In some of the most devastating attacks, LRA combatants waited until people had come together for Christmas festivities and then hacked their victims to death with machetes and axes or crushed their skulls with clubs and heavy sticks.

…to the Gaza Crisis of the same period.  She was somewhat skepticle, I must say, mainly because it’s obvious Israel/Gaza would get more coverage – but why should we accept that as the case?

Lydia has had experience reporting for the NY Times as a correspondent in South and Central America during the 80s and I was eager to use her insight in reporting from a small country back to an ‘elite’ country. Her enthusiasm and interest in the subject gave me a great jolt of fervour.

As we sat in a cramped tea house in Amsterdam, sipping on some Chai (served without milk or sugar, I might add), I was a little surprised by two of her answers.  Not because I did not consider them previously, or did not think them to be true.  I was surprised that she was so candid and direct, hardly giving the questions a seconds thought:

Simon: So why do you think the DR Congo crisis seems to have received such little attention?

Lydia: Africa – it’s as simple as that! It’s a shame but Africa is the toughest place to make a story.

I was shocked I think because I hoped, and I still hope, it’s not that simple.  But I and many others cannot help but think this is the case.  As I surf blogs and articles for information on the DR Congo, I come across ‘heart of darkness’ and ‘Conrad’ regularly.  I have to admit I would be somewhat flabbergasted if Joseph Conrad’s disturbing tale had such an impact on the world’s press (might be fun to include it in my work), but I cannot help but think there is some element of racism involved.

I also believe that news is dominated by our global systems which are economics, politics, culture, and systematic factors such as logistical factors, country size etc.  And this is backed up by several studies.   Dennis Wu (2000) notes that national traits, logistical factors and interaction and relatedness (i.e. colonial or economic ties) dominate the news agenda. I also think the current world paradigm is economics and terrorism.   So how do these effect Gaza and DR Congo coverage in the media?

Secondly, what impact does the media have on foreign policy?

Lydia: Almost nothing… I think it is extremely over-rated.  The media really has very little impact.

I also work for an NGO and I asked if she thought we rely too much, within our communications, on the press.  Lydia thinks so and purposed some ideas, primarily being making our quality news by employing a few top journalists.  If the story is good enough, it will make it, she said.  But then I thought – isn’t the DR Congo story good enough?

I wish I had longer with Lydia Chavez, or I could meet her again at a later date.  I doubt other journalists would be so understanding and concise about the complex issues at play.  Thank you.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2009 10:10 pm

    Petition Calling for Compensation of Victims of Sexual Violence in Eastern DR Congo

    “We urge the International Community especially the United States, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, German, UN General Secretary, the UN Security Council members,European Union and African Union to pressure the Congolese Authorities to Compensate Victims of Sexual Violence in Eastern DRC”

    The Mobilization for Justice and Peace in Congo (MPJC) has announced the launch of a global campaign to collect signatures to urge the international community to put pressure on president Kabila, the Congolese government and the Congole Parliament to take urgent action to compensate victims of sexual violence crimes in East of DR Congo. The petition can be signed at http://www.gopetition.com.au/online/26180.html

    According to Makuba Sekombo, Director of Community Affairs of MJPC, “despite legal provisions, the government of DR Congo has not yet created a formal victim support fund to compensate the hundreds of thousands of women and girls victims of extreme sexual violence in Eastern DR Congo. These victims continue to live a tragedy that the United Nations and humanitarian organizations are having difficulties to bear in Eastern DR Congo,” he said. “While no amount of money can erase the trauma and inconceivable grief suffered by victims and their families, compensation is crucial in the recovery process and the governement of Congo must assume its responsibility”

    The petition urges the international community especially the United States, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, German, UN General Secretary, the UN Security Council members,European Union and African Union) to pressure the Congolese authorities to compensate victims of sexual violence in Eastern DR Congo, where sexual violence against women and children has been widely employed as weapon of war for more than decade.

    “For many of victims, it is essential to know that they have a choice to seek justice and reparation,” said Mr Sekombo, “The availability of accessible mechanisms which support the right to seek a compensation would symbolise official acknowledgement of the Government and a way of taking responsibility for its tragic failures to protect hundreds of thousands women and children against horrific sexual violence crimes and can be experienced as a commitment by the Congolese Government to improve the criminal justice system response to future sexual violence crimes and strengthen measures to prevent these terrible crimes from being committed in the first place.” added Mr. Sekombo.

    About MJPC
    MJPC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to working to add a voice in the promotion of justice and peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular in the East where thousands of innocent civilians, including children and women continue to be victims of massive human rights violations while the armed groups responsible for these crimes remain unpunished.

    For more information on MJPC and the activities, visit the web site

    http://www.mjpcongo.org. E-mail: info@mjpcongo.org or call Makuba Sekombo at 1 408 806 3644. The online petition calling for for help to put pressure on Congolese authorities to compensate victims of sexual siolence in Eastern DRC can be signed at http://www.gopetition.com.au/online/26180.html or http://www.fivvsc.org

  2. Mees permalink
    August 16, 2009 9:07 am

    I am a communication graduate and I think social media can be a great tool so NGOs do not have to rely solely on mainstream media, even though they can play a part.

    The unfortunate reality with private media is they need “stories that sell.” If people don’t watch it, they can’t make money. It’s wants vs. necessity.

    I always wonder if people would be more engaged to act if the media treated stories like the Congo with as much attention and urgency as 9/11.

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