Three Questions

First Question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

Second Question: If the American actor and Academy Award-nominated star of the film Hotel Rwanda, Don Cheadle, is “invited to join five members of Congress on their fact-finding mission to see the Sudanese refugees and the way they are forced to live,” decides to accept the invitation and, while there, also performs a gig for ABC-TV’s Nightline, does Nightline‘s audience get to hear that there has been “so much killing in central Africa over these last 30 years or so that the numbers all but paralyze the brain,” with “close to 2 million people” having been driven from their homes in western Sudan alone over the past couple of years, and the “estimates of those killed [ranging] from 70,000 to several hundred thousand”?

Earlier this month, the Reuters Foundation‘s important humanitarian webservice known as AlertNet publicized the results of an informal poll it had conducted among a group it describes as “humanitarian professionals, media personalities, academics and activists.” The basic question that AlertNet asked was (I’m paraphrasing), Of the world’s most serious humanitarian emergencies, to which do you believe the media ought to pay the most attention over the course of the coming year? AlertNet then compiled the answers according to topic or place (e.g., Northern Uganda, Eritrea, West Papua, chronic hunger, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and the like—there are literally dozens), and produced a list that reflects what its 103 respondents told it, ranked according to the most frequently mentioned emergencies. AlertNet calls this list the “Top Ten ‘Forgotten’ Emergencies.”

In descending order, from the most frequently mentioned emergency to the tenth-most frequently mentioned, the AlertNet list reads as follows:

1. The Democratic Republic of the Congo
2. Uganda
3. The Sudan (i.e., both the south and the west)
5. “West Africa” (e.g., Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone)
6. Colombia
7. Chechnya
8. Haiti
9. Nepal
10. “Infectious diseases” (e.g., malaria and tuberculosis)

For those of you who’d like to explore this AlertNet undertaking, I’ve assembled here links to several of the webpages that AlertNet devotes to it. (Sorry I can’t tell you how long the links will remain operational. Hopefully, they are permanent.)

Factsheet: AlertNet top 10 ‘forgotten’ emergencies,” AlertNet, March 9, 2005
Graphic: AlertNet top 10 ‘forgotten’ emergencies,” AlertNet, March 9, 2005
Who Said What: AlertNet ‘forgotten’ emergencies poll,” AlertNet, March 9, 2005
World’s ‘forgotten’ crises cry out for attention,” Ruth Gidley, Reuters, March 9, 2005
Media short-sightedness is truly staggering,” Gareth Evans, AlertNet, March 9, 2005
Congo war tops AlertNet poll of ‘forgotten’ crises,” Ruth Gidley, AlertNet, March 10, 2005
Tsunami coverage dwarfs ‘forgotten’ crises-research,” Mark Jones, AlertNet, March 10, 2005

In the meantime, a few not unrelated thoughts.

“All emergencies are not created equal,” Reuters’ Ruth Gidley noted in a report that accompanied the release of the poll.

Gidley continued (March 9):

A tsunami of mythical proportions roars out of the Indian Ocean, kills up to 300,000 and prompts the public to empty their pockets like never before as media coverage goes into overdrive.

In contrast, war in Democratic Republic of Congo kills nearly 4 million and leaves thousands traumatised by rape and machete massacres, yet hardly registers in the global media.

Why do some humanitarian crises make the front pages while others wait in vain for their turn in the spotlight?

This last question (rephrase it however you prefer) has intrigued me for quite a few years. Based on the so-called “Top-Ten” ranking that AlertNet compiled—and please note that the list is intended to be forward-looking, relevant as a guide for media coverage over the next 12 months, not the past—AlterNet also sponsored some detailed research into “more than 200 English-language newspapers from around the world held in the database Factiva.” The researchers’ goal was to use the items on the “Top Ten” list to check how much coverage each of these emergencies has received in this (frankly quite massive) sample looking backwards over the 12-month period from March, 2004, through February, 2005. An eleventh emergency, the December 26 tsunami generated by an earthquake on the floor of the Indian Ocean, also was included in the sample. (For a detailed report on this research, see “Tsunami coverage dwarfs ‘forgotten’ crises—research,” Mark Jones, AlertNet, March 10, 2005.—Please note that the more technical matters behind the research I am going to skip.)

Two charts are especially worth taking a closer look at here:

Chart One: English-Language News Mentions of Top Ten “Forgotten” Emergencies and the Indian Ocean Tsunami
Chart Two: English-Language News Mentions of Top Ten “Forgotten” Emergencies, March 2004-February 2005

What Chart One shows is that, in the English-language media during the 12-month period sampled (March 2004-February 2005), the volume of coverage devoted to the tsunami and its aftermath alone was greater than the coverage of all of the “Top Ten” emergencies combined (34,994 items compared to 33,623). But after the Indian Ocean tsunami, it was the Sudan that happened to have been the single most-often reported of the “forgotten” humanitarian emergencies in the world. A point worth remembering, I think. Particularly as we continue to come across commentators who try to make a lot of moral mileage out of the alleged fact that the crisis in the Sudan has been ignored.

(About which, do check out the report just published by the Global Internally Displaced Persons Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2004. Therein we read that, last year, “In Sudan alone, up to 6 million people were internally displaced, more than in any other country in the world.”)

Chart Two excludes the tsunami. What this chart does is plot, on a month-by-month basis, the volume of coverage to have been given to each of the “Top Ten” emergency stories in the same English-language media sample over the same 12 month period (March 2004-February 2005). You’ll have to look it over for yourselves. But what the chart shows is that, beginning in May 2004, the volume of coverage devoted to the Sudan—and here we’re talking about the western part of the Sudan, namely the three Darfur states—clearly began to exceed the coverage devoted to the other nine emergencies on the list, with the focus on the Sudan peaking in mid-summer 2004, and the Sudan retaining this lead over the other stories until February 2005, with the important exception of the month of September, when the school siege and hostage crisis and subsequent murder of upwards of 350 people (largely children) by Chechen separatists in the North Ossetian town of Beslan occurred and received so much coverage—for maybe a week to ten days.

So: The Indian Ocean tsunami aside (and it belongs on the side for several reasons, perhaps the major one being that the initial event was an act of nature, rather than a human one, and wholly beyond anyone’s control), what this important body of research that AlertNet has assembled for us shows is that over the past 12 months, and with very little departure from the overall pattern, the single-most covered “emergency” within the English-language media has been the Sudan—and in particular, the emergency in the western region of the country. The “Crisis in Darfur.”

AlertNet’s Mark Jones raises some interesting points about these comparative trends in coverage of emergencies and humanitarian crises. “The south Asian press gave more space to the tsunami than other English-language publications, although the British press also scored highly,” he writes. “In contrast, the U.S. press devoted far less coverage, with the Washington Post coming in at number 23 and the New York Times at number 27. (For the chart that depicts this data—unfortunately, AlertNet did not label its own charts—see Chart Four.)

More interesting yet was an earlier commentary by Mark Jones: “What Put Sudan on the Map?

“That Darfur merited a place on the mainstream agenda is beyond dispute,” Jones writes. Okay. It sure as hell sounds nice and caring and reasonable. Don’t you think? Even cold-bloodedly logical. After all, what could make more sense? As human suffering increases, the amount of attention we devote to it should also increase. More or less proportionately. Assuming that we can do something positive and constructive about it.

But let’s stop everything right here, right now. Because this is not what Mark Jones is really saying.

That Darfur (along with a lot other crises around the world) belongs on the agenda of anybody devoted to humanitarian causes—to helping mitigate and remedy the unnecessary suffering of other human beings—regardless of race, creed, politics, and all of that—is what is beyond dispute. But what does helping other human beings have to do with the so-called “mainstream agenda“? I mean, does anyone honestly believe that the mainstream‘s agenda is the same agenda as the humanitarian‘s? Since when? Beginning in the month of April, 2004, perhaps, when coverage of the crisis in Darfur began to exceed coverage of the crisis in Haiti, according to the AlertNet researchers? I don’t think so.

Taking things in an ascending order of specificity: We have the mainstream news media’s agenda; the mainstream English-language news media’s agenda (Don’t forget that the AlertNet researchers lumped The Hindu into the same basket as the New York Times and the Washington Post); and, last but not least, the agenda of the mainstream news media of the principal English-speaking powers. Namely, the United States and Britain. The U.S. media and the British media. And so on. And so on.

What good reason do we have to expect the mainstream, thusly defined, to place humanitarian crises on their agenda, regardless of race, creed, politics—and regardless of worldly power, above all other factors?

And to place it on their agenda how?

In what manner, exactly?

And why?

Now. For my Third and Final Question. If the same Don Cheadle or another American actor (say the Academy Award-winning Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, Angelina Jolie), or a particular Irish rock star, were to be invited to join members of Congress on a fact-finding mission to central Iraq, where they could bear witness to some of Iraq’s internally displaced population, including those expelled last year from the city of Fallujah (the “Guernica of the Arab world,” as Tariq Ali calls it), and to investigate the causes of their displacement, and to hold those most responsible for it accountable, can you imagine Nightline or any other mainstream American news source (or the BBC, for that matter) giving them five seconds of airtime, much less devoting an entire program to it?

Can you even imagine five members of the American Congress willing to undertake such a witness-bearing mission to Iraq? Or this particular segment of the celebrity witness-bearing cadre doing likewise?

And how many commentaries do you suppose the op-ed pages of the American print media would publish for them?

Three? Two? One?

Something less?

Postscript. According to Reuters, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told a news conference Wednesday in Geneva (“UN Sees East Congo as Worse Crisis Than Darfur,” Robert Evans, Reuters, March 16):

Eastern Congo is suffering the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis, with a death toll outstripping that in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region, a top United Nations official said on Wednesday.

U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland said that over the last six years the toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s amounted to “one tsunami every six months” – a reference to the December disaster which left about 300,000 people dead or missing in Asia.

“In terms of the human lives lost … this is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today and it is beyond belief that the world is not paying more attention,” he told a news conference.

Egeland was speaking during a visit to Geneva for talks with U.N. and other relief workers on improving the global humanitarian aid system can be improved.

On Tuesday he came under fire from the Sudanese government over estimates transmitted through his spokesman that up to 180,000 people may have died from hunger and disease in Darfur, western Sudan, over the past 19 months of fighting.

At his Geneva news conference, he insisted the figure was a reasonable assumption – given that an average of 10,000 civilians had been dying each month since the start of the conflict between local rebel groups and government forces backed by militias.

But the rate was declining now that the Sudanese authorities had allowed foreign aid teams into the country to help about 1.8 million people driven from their homes and largely living in refugee camps, Egeland said.

If this is even remotely accurate of how Jan Egeland & Co. have been running the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, then Egeland & Co. ought to be fired. (Though I dread the thought of who might be installed in their place. And we need to do everything possible to keep the regime in Washington’s filthy hands off of it.)

Still. Think about it. Egeland & Co. have now gone on record affirming that, in “terms of the human lives lost [the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.” They also have called the DRC the “most neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today,” and lamented that “it is beyond belief that the world is not paying more attention.”

If these assertions have any validity today (I mean in terms of sheer scale—not as assessments of the nature of the crises, which we’d have to handle separately), then they also would have been valid over the course of the past 24 or even 72 months—or “one tsunami every six monthsfor the past six or seven years.

Now. It was during the course of the past 24 months that Egeland & Co. began to repeatedly make assertions (e.g., “Humanitarian and security situations in western Sudan reach new lows, UN agency says,” UN News Center, Dec. 5, 2003) to the effect that:

The Sudanese crisis is already estimated as being the worst worldwide, with 4 million people displaced.
“The humanitarian situation in Darfur has quickly become one of the worst in the world. Access to people in need is blocked by the parties in conflict and now, as the need for aid grows, stocks of relief materials are dwindling,” said Mr. Egeland, who is also Under-Secretary-General in charge of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

So where on earth do Egeland & Co. get off complaining, as late as mid-March, 2005, that “it is beyond belief that the world is not paying more attention” to the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Might not Egeland & Co.’s performance of their job in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have had anything to do with it?

And here’s the really interesting question: Why?

Jan Egeland & Co. have been running the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in a style not unlike that of the U.S. Government’s “Threats Advisory System.”

The world’s humanitarian crises have been very poorly served.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Homepage)
Humanitarian and security situations in western Sudan reach new lows, UN agency says,” UN News Center, December 5, 2003
Highlights of Briefing by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator on Humanitarian Situation in Different Regions,” UN Office at Geneva, March 16, 2005
Eastern DR of Congo surpasses Darfur as biggest, most neglected emergency – UN relief official,” UN News Center, March 16

Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2004, Jens-Hagen Eschenbächer et al., Global IDP Project, Norwegian Refugee Council, March, 2005 (For the PFD version of the complete report.)

What put Sudan on the map?” Mark Jones, AlertNet, January 19, 2005 (from an earlier source)
Tsunami coverage dwarfs ‘forgotten’ crises-research,” Mark Jones, AlertNet, March 10, 2005
Chart One: English-Language News Mentions of Top Ten “Forgotten” Emergencies and the Indian Ocean Tsunami
Chart Two: English-Language News Mentions of Top Ten “Forgotten” Emergencies, March 2004-February 2005

How the tsunami hogged the headlines,” Julia Day, The Guardian, March 11, 2005

“Art Meets Life,” Nightline, February 9, 2005
Reporter’s Notebook: Actor Don Cheadle in Sudan,” Don Cheadle and Rick Wilkinson, Special to ABC News, February 9, 2005

Rwanda’s Lessons Yet To Be Learned,” Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, Boston Globe, January 8, 2005
Seven deadly trends in Darfur,” Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, Washington Times, February 10, 2005
‘Never again’ — again,” Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, USA Today, March 2, 2005

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