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You, Me, & the Media – Mobilise for Change

March 25, 2009

98512395gh8My work is focusing predominantly upon the media and why they don’t report the DR Congo as much as I feel they should.  News is reported within a media logic, and reports are framed by social constructs, often applying the same few paradigms.

In my eyes, and the eyes of many, the media is too uncritical and offers too much space to governments and political leaders.  Media are a crucial institution in perpetuating this social constructs.

This, however, sounds as if I put blame completely on the shoulders of journalists, editors and media producers.  This is not the case.

It’s up to the citizen to demand change from the media.  For a majority of press, for instance, the bottom line is corporate value, dominated by commercial standards. Therefore, ultimately, the challenge is upon all of us.

The media audience must be mobilised as critical consumers of everything they are fed.  When this occurs, the commercial paradigm shifts to meet this new demand, and journalists are able to report the story.

Being critical is important, being mobilised is the key to social development.  When I read or write about the conflict in DR Congo, I often wonder what I can actually do to trigger a tangible change – it appears so overwhelmingly complex.

– 1,500 dead a day

– 5 million already dead

-conflict fought across multiple lines

-350,000 displaced

-1,000 rapes a month

When numbers are applied, it is difficult to truly connect with a story.  In fact, it makes it much easier to disconnect. So how can one humanise these numbers? I have begun to see positive applications of this.

For instance, MSF’s Condition Critical is a great example of humanising the individual victims of the rapes, and letting them tell their own individual story.  1,500 dead a day are 1,500 different, individual stories.

I read a charming blog today by Schooldad, ‘a father of three reports on homeschooling, working, and the joys and terrors of parenting’.  This is a normal, everyday person just like you and I; blogging about Harry Potter, the cat, and his kids.  But he has also found a way to mobilise himself for positive social change:

I loaned $25 to a man in the Congo

March 24th, 2009

A few months ago I loaned $25 to 5 women in the Dominican Republic thru an online micro-lending service called Kiva.  Kiva works with “field partners” around the world, organizations that actually oversee the administration and repayment of each loan.  It turned out that there was a problem (which the field partner in the Dominican Republic identified) which prevented the loan from going thru, so while Kiva and the field partner sorted things out, Kiva refunded my $25 which meant I could loan that money to someone else.

So I looked thru Kiva’s loan listings and selected a man in the Congo who wanted a loan to increase the profit he made in his biscuit-selling business by adding purified water.  And last week I got an email letting me know that he’d already posted his first loan payment of $1.56.  Woo-hoo!

Kiva’s a really neat organization.  If you’re looking for a way to help small (really small) business entrepreneurs in poor countries around the world, and you don’t have a lot of money to lend, this could be the site for you.

Instead of throwing $25 at a charity (which is not necessarily a bad thing), schooldad has found the means allowing him to connect with an individual in DR Congo and support their business, giving that person the ability to develop themselves.

Gordon Brown (I know…) recently quoted a highly successful Olympic coach, which sums this all up:

”The TeamGB cycling coach, Dave Brailsford, has done a great job. He says – maybe it’s true of Manchester United as well – that a big factor in success is what he calls the aggregation of minute differences . So you’ve got the handlebars better designed and he got the fitness improved and the uniform they wear … The aggregation of small improvements has put them at the top of the league.”

The aggregation of the many individual actions ultimately leads to success, you cannot rely on the few.  If more of us behaved like school dad, then things may really start moving.

Blood River – DR Congo & China

March 24, 2009

Ah, the wonders of Twitter! I was, like most, skeptical at first of this new social networking site, but have rapidly come round to it, merely because there are millions of sources of interesting information.

 

As I searched Twitter yesterday, I came across David Mountain’s announcement that he was about to attend a lecture with Tim Butcher, author of Blood River.  I instantly lit up at the sight of this.

 

I read Blood River as I sat on a 2 day train journey between Beijing and Hanoi.  How different the world outside that cabin to the world inside the novel.  Butcher’s account of his journey ignited my interest, and outrage, in the story of DR Congo and set me on the path I currently tread. 

 

David Mountain was kind enough to send me an email outlining what he heard from Tim Butcher:

 

Tim Butcher gave a great talk last night. The structure for his talk

came from his Blood River book and all of the images he used are

available on his website  (http://www.bloodriver.co.uk/). His aim was

to recreate the journey of Stanley down the length of the Congo 130

yrs ago. 50yrs ago under Belgian Colonialist rule this would have been

simple: Congo had extensive infrastructure – roads, rail, navigable

rivers – but this has now all been lost to war or the jungle. His

journey was undertaken on motorbikes thru unpaved jungle tracks and

downriver on pirogues (hollowed out tree trunks) and finally, a UN

boat. His journey took 4 years of planning, and 7 weeks to complete.

 

Some of the details of the conflict were fascinating. Everywhere he

went, he heard evidence of conflict. The various sides in this

conflict often lack any organisation or structure. Often the battles

were small armed militias attacking undefended villages. He made the

point that these killings lack any institutional memory: when shown

human remains (bones) he asked he was responsible for the attacks, and

the villager he was with was unsure when this has occurred, or who the

group was. They had suffered frequent attacks from many different

militias. A phrase he heard again and again from people was “we fled

to the bush”. The locals find it hard to invest in crops, livestock or

any form of industry since it makes them a target, and they are so

likely to have it taken from them forcefully.

 

Most of these deaths are going unreported. He estimates 1500 people

dying due to Conflict in DR Congo everyday but this is happening in

remote cutoff places, and few reports emerge. Even in the well

connected capital Kinsasha, when in 2004 hundreds were killed in

rioting, but it barely justified a paragraph in Western newspapers.

 

He gave some hope. He says it is a crime by a tiny minority.

Investment may help, but resources have been a curse for the Congolese

(Belgian colonial rule was brutal). Even the current round of Chinese

investment is focused on building infrastructure to get natural

resources out, rather than in schools or hospitals. Holding the

leaders of Congolese militia to account in the International Criminal

Court also shows some hope.

 

The war officially finished in 2003 but for the majority of Congolese,

nothing has changed.”

 

 

Indeed, the Chinese investment is interesting.  The Chinese describe the $9 billion investment as win-win: DR Congo gains major infrastructure, China gains access to the awesome mineral wealth.  But as I traveled on the train throughout the wilder areas of China, it did not seem as if the wealth I saw in its capital Beijing was spreading so far.  How then, can this wealth spread to Africa?  At these times of financial crisis, why would China want to source work from abroad? 

“Most of the infrastructure construction will be carried out by Chinese companies and labour with very little benefit to the Congolese workforce or to the wider economy.” Inteldaily.com

In all fairness, China has offered DR Congo an ambitious plan, and you cannot blame them for taking it as they still harbour $10 billion in debt sourced during Mobutu’s dictatorship.  But the plans to build infrastructure for a country the size of Eastern Europe appear limited. 

It has been highly documented that China’s rapid rise to power has been on part due to their short-termism.  I noted this as I walked around Beijing and looked at the scattered and messy sky line of mismatched office and apartment blocks. 

This deal appears to take any benefit that may have been had by DR Congo’s future generations out of their hands and into the hands of the wealthy elite.

Rape as a Weapon of War – DR Congo

March 23, 2009

CONGO FIGHTINGIn his reflections in Media between Warmongers and Peacemakers, Cees Hamelink notes:

“What is most troublesome in today’s rise of ethnic conflicts, is that most of these conflicts are characterized by the exercise of gross violence against civil populations. Contrary to classical warfare between armies, violence now increasingly targets civilians of the fighting parties.  At the dramatic core of ethnic conflicts is the grand scale perpetration of crimes against humanity.”

In the DR Congo, innocent women and children are on the receiving end of these crimes against humanity.  Children are regularly kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers, and women are raped; the weapon of war to subjugate the citizen population.

Hundred of thousands of women have been raped, tortured and humiliated in DR Congo, and this crime against humanity continues daily, hourly and by the minute.  It can’t be committed merely on a whim, it requires motivation and beliefs.

Where do these motivations come from? There must be an organised distribution of such information, but I struggle to find any relevant information on this.

How can one human being be persuaded into committing such acts? Hamelink suggests it is the de-humanisation of one group, so do we see the mass de-humanisation of women of the DR Congo? Surely, but I cannot tell where this stems from.

Thankfully I am beginning to see the media picking up on the mass rapes against the women of DR Congo, and NGOs now investing more effort into this issue.  A good example is Condition-Critical by MSF, which gives voice to these women and attempts to humanise their very individual, very personal, and very bewildering stories.

The media may be slowly picking up on this, and I hope the full horrors which the women are subjected to are reported accurately.  The stories and the photographs will be upsetting, but the Western world must see such images, in my opinion.  The horrors should not be ignored or forgotten.

“What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone, that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled, we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

Elie Wiesel, 1986

More on this another time.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

March 23, 2009

Soon I’ll be writing about how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights impacts upon the way journalists should report, and how they should report the conflict and human rights abuses in DR Congo. For now, here’s a great short video outlining the declaration. It’s something every single individual on this planet should know about:

In Defence of Conrad – Heart of Darkness & DR Congo

March 22, 2009

Heart of DarknessI’d like to briefly outline my views on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because I feel it is often misused within the press as a frame for the DR Congo.  It’s by no means in-depth or complete, but I’d like to get my ideas down.  Any others are most welcome, of course.

Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness (1902) is the novella detailing Marlow’s journey as a ferry-boat captain, employed by a Belgian trading company.  The river is never named but it is likely to be the Congo River.  Themes from this book are many: symbolic between light and dark, psychological as a journey about the inner self, mythical as the idea of humanity and political as a criticism of imperialism.

I see this book mentioned many times when I trace articles about the DR Congo, and for many this is worrying.  To some it is worrying because this book can be viewed as racist, as Nigerian Chinua Achebe commented:

‘Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting, as when he gives us this brief description: “A black arms”—as though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms! But so relenting is Conrad’s obsession.’

For modern society indeed the usage of ‘nigger’ is unacceptable, but this was written in the 1800s; a time when such a word was common place.  There is a framed narrative present – it is not Conrad saying such things, it is Marlow.  In fact, Conrad is mocking his own society throughout the story.  At the start of the novel, comparisons are drawn between the Romans and the new imperialists in Africa:

‘they grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got’

Through a political frame, this book can be read as the critique of the ignorance and greed of European colonialists.   The novella is scathing of colonialism, written at a time when the public began to fear colonialism wasn’t working like it once did.

The theme of light and darkness are more complex than one may first think.  Light is the indication of deceit; when something glitters it is not through beauty or goodness, but because something is hiding beneath the surface.  Something often dangerous.

‘The haze is translucent, still, eerie, as though the sky was covered with white gauze.’

Therefore, in a sense, light is the darkness: perhaps symbolism for the Europeans in Africa.  Europeans represent darkness and evil.  The parallels drawn with the economic centre London, and the River Thames in particular, are also interesting.

London is referred to as a ‘monstrous town’ and sees a gloom settled over the city, dimming the light.  One can sense that this darkness upon the economic and political power centre represents Conrad’s criticism of all of Europe.

Hearts of Darkness is a story of the white mans’ greed, not of an imagined ‘African savagery’; imagery such as this was merely an openly used device of the time.   I’ll underline again the fact that Marlow was a character device, not the voice of Conrad.  Conrad said:

‘Heart of Darkness is experience…pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.’

Ultimately, I think Conrad’s point was that there is a mystery to our existence that we may never fathom – a real heart of darkness.   These themes are as potent now as ever when we think about the Western world and DR Congo.

Media & Money – DR Congo

March 20, 2009

So I’ve noted from my little poll and asking around that there is a general rough concensus that the DR Congo crisis doesn’t make it into the press so often for one predominant reason: it’s in Africa (you know, Africa the country).

Myers, Klak & Koehl in 1996 looked at the differences in press coverage between those which covered the Bosnia conflict, and those on the Rwanda conflict just before the genocide.  The outcome was not surpising.

Both conflicts had very many similarities: ethnic divisions, military tactics, influces of external imperialism and so forth.   However, it was found that the US media showed great imbalances between the coverage of each conflict.

In essence, the article looks at how a war can be framed.  Framing is a social construction formed around the subject to give a meaning; a construct which can vary greatly.  The authors found that the press tended to distort Rwandan stories to fit a certain frame – relying on non-African sources, refering to Africa and the conflict as tribal, and in fact ‘others’ the continent; Conranesque one could say (I may have to defend Heart of Darkness at a later date I feel).

They call this the inscription of difference: media are a central player in how society constructs the world in their minds, leading to categorisation and defamation of peoples of places in a new world construct.

This new world construct evolved from the cold-war one, and has become an economic construct.  Therefore, one could suggest that economic importance binds the media together.  If the countries of Africa were able to have power over their own huge resources, one could imagine the world would be forced to sit up and listen.

However, it is still largely in the interests of the large coporates and governments plundering the resources of African countries like DR Congo to let the chaos reign, so they can step in and steal at will, unnoticed.  So does the media merely manufacture consent?  See my post media & influence for more information.

Is there a way to unbind the link between media and money?

Blood Coltan – Driving Conflict?

March 19, 2009

More on the rush for coltan in DR Congo, and how our mobile phones may help drive the greed rush in DR Congo:

(51mins, image quality not great)

Perhaps it’s slightly ironic how I eulogised in the previous post how mobile phones could save people and it’s actually driving this crisis. However, the way the western purchasers deal is the problem; the demand could, and should, help the Congolese. Mobile phones can save lives – take a look at Ushahidi (I’ll write about this further at a later date).