Press charged with ignoring Africas pain
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Perhaps the most jolting piece of analysis at a three-day Rome conference on the treatment of Africa in the Western press -- at least for the journalists who were the intended audience -- was that the basic assumptions of their craft run directly contrary to the Christian gospel.
For something to be considered news by the mass media, it has to be close to their audience, it has to involve conflict and it usually revolves around someone famous, said Comboni Missionary Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana, who runs the Africa News service based in Nairobi, Kenya.
But the poor and abandoned in Africa are not famous, and are distant from the consumers of First World media, both psychologically and geographically, he said. People who work quietly for peace strike reporters as less colorful and dramatic than makers of war.
Thus, Kizito argued, journalists need exceptional professional competence if they are to bring gospel values or even basic human values in line with their professional commitments.
It was a sobering, provocative message but one that few journalists were likely to hear, to judge from the audience at the Oct. 26-28 Break the Silence: Peace for Africa conference. The event was held at the Rome headquarters of the Comboni Missionaries, a community founded in the 19th century by Italian missionary Daniel Comboni.
Comboni, who fought the slave trade and set up centers for education and training of Africans, became the first bishop of Khartoum in Sudan.
The Combonis are located on the southeastern outskirts of Rome, and that peripheral location seemed an apt metaphor for Africas position on the radar screen of most Western news outlets. Missionaries and Africans far outnumbered journalists at the conference, though invitations and news releases had been directed to all of the news agencies based in Rome.
The Africans, and Catholic missionaries -- often the only Westerners with experience of regions lacerated by conflict or disease -- implored the handful of journalists who did show up to make coverage of Africa more profound in two ways. The first, they said, is to show Africans confronting and transcending their circumstances, rather than simply being victimized by them. The second is to get to the root causes of violence rather than simply reporting on the latest flare-ups.
We Africans are sick of the stereotypes, the faulty assumptions and the facile clichés, said Sr. Elisa Kidanè, an Eritrean who writes for an Italian missionary journal called Raggio. Everyone knows about the men who are strong in war, but who writes of the women strong in peace?
In an interview with NCR, Kidanè pointed to a group of Congolese women called the Société Civile in South Kivu who risk imprisonment and death by circulating details of atrocities committed by parties to that nations long-running conflict, including the names of soldiers and officers involved. The group called a womens strike this past March 8, calling it a protest for bread and roses as opposed to hunger and violence. Strikers refused to work in market stalls or come out of their houses. The group organizes similar actions to protest every act of armed violence.
Whos telling the world about what theyre doing? Kidanè asked. Why are the war lords so much more compelling than women risking their lives to speak the truth?
The conference ended with a call for religious groups to sensitize the press to African realities, and to back up that effort by threatening boycotts of news outlets that do not reflect equitable criterion of information.
Despite calls for more positive news, part of the aim was to encourage greater press attention to current tragedies in Africa, especially political and economic systems that exacerbate the suffering.
The example of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) loomed large, in part because Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo of Kisangani was one of the conferences keynote speakers.
The Congo is currently divided among nine nations, and their client rebel and paramilitary forces, some 23 armed bands. Chronic combat has generated misery on a staggering scale. Exact figures are elusive, but many counts put the number of dead in the past 18 months at 2 million. The dead are casualties of war, civilian massacres, and disease and hunger related to the fighting.
Among the fatalities are a number of Catholic clergy, including Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa of Bukavu in the Congo, shot and killed in 1996. A rally in remembrance of Munzihirwa took place at Romes Campodoglio, or city hall, Oct. 28.
The Congo is hardly an isolated case. Angola is today engulfed anew in a war that has seen almost a million dead and 1.5 million refugees since 1975. Fighting in Burundi has left 200,000 dead and 240,000 displaced since 1993, with the death rate sometimes reaching 1,000 a month. Seventeen years of war in Sudan have left 2 million dead and 4 million without homes. Fighting continues in parts of Rwanda and Uganda, where millions died and 2 million are still displaced after the brutal genocidal campaigns of the mid-1990s. In Sierra Leone, where 75,000 people are dead and almost half the population of 4.5 million has been displaced by chronic fighting, armed factions wielding machetes hack off the limbs of perceived opponents.
These are routinely referred to as civil wars, Monsengwo said, but in reality these are conflicts manipulated to a great degree by Western, especially American, interests.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States has spent more than $227 million arming African nations despite the lack of Cold War logic for doing so. That total includes $112 million to spread weapons among all nine nations currently fighting one another in the Congo. Another $15 million has gone to train their troops through the Pentagons Joint Combined Exchange Training program.
At the same time, the United States has committed just $1 million to support the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Congo. The unmistakable impression, Monsengwo said, is that the Americans are willing to pay far more to wage war than to bring peace.
Monsengwo told NCR that other important players in stoking African conflicts include Western corporations eager to exploit the continents natural resources, including diamonds, oil, timber, palm oil and even big-game animal trophies.
Africans were quick to acknowledge that many of the continents problems are, to some extent, homegrown.
We have huge problems with corruption and the absence of a political class capable of acting with integrity, said Amadou Toumani Touré, former head of state of Mali.
Yet participants also agreed that there will be no lasting recovery in Africa without significant commitment from the West, especially the United States.
The United States has a great moral responsibility to reform political and economic systems, Monsengwo told NCR. He mentioned reform of the arms trade, debt cancellation, and putting pressure on multinational corporations not to deal in raw materials from battle zones as meaningful steps U.S. policy-makers could adopt.
This brought Monsengwo back to the role of the press. You journalists, he said, must shock people with the truth.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000