Hidden Wars, Forgotton Disasters and Global South in Global Mainstream Media

By Manoj Bhusal, October 2011

25 years after Michael Buerk's broadcasts from Ethiopia, the documentaries have stopped, but the starvation hasn't. (The Guardian, 19.10.2009) Mid-September this year, a deadly earthquake rocked the Himalayan region that claimed many lives and caused a huge damage across many parts of Nepal, India and Tibet. The same quake destroyed a British Embassy wall in Kathmandu entrapping and killing three people. That day the BBC breaking news, on its online service, read: Three People Killed as a British Embassy wall Collapses! Later on the BBC did publish/broadcast sporadic reporting about the disaster and how relief work was going on in the ground, but such reporting was put somewhere in a regional section of its website. The falling of a British embassy wall became breaking news, perhaps a symbolic sensation, whereas, the actual toll of the disaster and suffering of hundreds of thousands of people didn’t get that much media attention, and whatever details were presented, they were quickly archived. This week the same news corporation prioritized and published a piece of news titled ‘North Korean leader's grandson Facebook pages revealed’. The report included the grandson’s flavor for democracy and his nostalgic wall posts and photo

comments for an ‘unknown’ girl, on the social networking site Facebook. The above mentioned two examples and a plenty of other examples in the Western media make one ponder about the prioritization of mainstream, largely Western, global media when it comes to reporting the developing world. Not only that, it appears that the trend of reporting about and from the developing world is in a transition as many news agencies have closed down their bureaus in different parts of the developing world (Constable 2007 & Russo 2010). This essay examines some of the issues related to the reporting and non-reporting ‘culture’ of mainstream Western media when it comes to events and issues in the developing world. In addition, the essay tries to present some theoretical perspectives on the phenomenon and discusses the media neglect and apathy and a perpetuation of suffering caused by that. A few examples and notable cases have been presented throughout the text primarily to support the arguments presented herein. Hidden wars and the global mainstream media Only about five or six per cent of the American evening news before September 11 was about foreign news. Instead it was the story about California congressman Gary Condit's relationship to his former intern Chandra Levy that made the headlines. (Corera 2003, 254)

After the Second World War, much of the developed world has achieved relative peace as at least, with some exceptions though, no fatal interstate insurgencies and conflicts have occurred during the last decades. However, the scenario in the developing world, home to 5.5 of the planet’s 6.7 billion people, has been a different one. Still struggling to overcome harrowing scorches of absolute poverty, the developing world, faces worst natural disasters, arguably exacerbated by climate change, and has been grappling with some of the most deadly conflicts in human history. Apart from intrastate conflicts, genocides and civil wars, a few countries in the developing world also face interstate wars, occupation and various forms of exploitation and subjugation. The developing world has been a battle ground for a vast majority of today’s wars as ‘apart from the wars in the former Yugoslavia, most of the post-Cold War conflicts -intra rather than inter-state - have taken place in the global South (Thussu &Freedman 2003, 1). Some of these conflicts do get into international spotlight and be part of a global discussion and, consequently, possibly, receive a global response, however ‘there are the ‘invisible’ conflicts, which may have claimed millions of lives - war in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are prime examples- but rarely register on international media radars, which tend to cover only the conflicts where the West, led by the United States, is seen to be a peacemaker’(Thussu &Freedman 2003, 1). We can assume that the nature of conflicts and their dynamics have significantly changed in the modern

times. There seem to be variations in forms, aims and strategies the way wars are waged and conflicts are fought, however, the fatalities, the massive destruction of lives and livelihoods and the human suffering continue to mount. Simon Cottle argues that despite ‘major intensive wars fought for territorial conquest and control have declined in the world, civil wars and other forms of intrastate conflicts often involving extreme violence, including genocide and the deliberate targeting of civilian population continue.’ He adds that such conflicts often cause ‘large number of internally displaced people and an exodus of refugees to neighboring territories.’ However, he contends, ‘many of them go unreported and unnoticed by the world.’ (Cottle 2008, 114,115.) Nevertheless, it appears that some of the hidden wars and ‘silent’ conflicts do get widespread international coverage; however, their setting, timing, priorities and the content seem to vary. Past incidents show that when an immediate global response is needed, often, no contextual reporting is done, that in turn, prevents the victims from receiving any possible international assistance. For instance, ‘the genocide perpetrated in Darfur, in western Sudan, went unreported for years and has only found intermittent coverage following high profile US declarations of genocide in 2004’ (Cotle 2008,116). This very example raises questions about the structural set-up and the expressed as well as unexpressed priorities of the mainstream global media, and this also demands an answer to the question who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of

media coverage and, most significantly, why. Galtung & Holmboe argue that as the mainstream media are elite centered, it is likely that ‘in an elite centered news communication system ordinary people are not even given the chance of representing themselves’ (Galtung & Holmboe 1965, 68).On the basis of their empirical findings, they further suggest that ‘the more the event concerns elite nations, the more probable that it will become a news item’ (Galtung & Holmboe 1965, 68). None or scant coverage of such hidden wars and silent sufferings cannot be explained solely on the basis of geographical remoteness or logistical inconvenience specially at a time when modern means of mass communications have unprecedentedly narrowed down the time gap in communication and have changed the perception of distance. Simon Cottle argues: The structured silence of hidden wars, courtesy of the media, is all the more remarkable on a planet now constantly orbited by communication satellites and where conflicts and crimes against humanity can be communicated from almost anywhere on Earth shortly thereafter, if not in real time (Cottle 2008, 115). The observations made above imply that the media neglect of hidden wars doesn’t seem to be caused by merely a logistical, financial or geographical inconvenience. This has more to do with the perception and priorities of

the mainstream media. It is a matter of inquiry and discussion whether it attributes to a general apathy towards and distancing as well as intentional alienation of the developing world. Forgotton disasters and unnoticed silent sufferings Again last year, there were many deaths from starvation. The crisis was revealed not by British TV, but by CNN which was putting together a one-hour special with Unicef. (The Guardian, 19.10.2009) Galtung & Holmboe argue that ‘the event that takes place over a longer time-span will go unrecorded unless it reaches some kind of dramatic climax’ (Galtung & Holmboe 1965, 66). This perspective can be related to ‘non-reporting’ of hidden wars as they often happen systematically for a continuous period of time and media are not interested until some decisive climax comes to the sight. Then again if sudden incidents were to be given prompt and extensive coverage, disasters in the developing world would have got that. The trend, however, is not that. ‘Disasters hit hardest in the poorest parts of the globe. Ninety-eight per cent of those killed or affected by disasters each year come from the developing world’ (Franks 2006, 281). However, in terms of mainstream media coverage, they seem to get a minimal space. For instance, ‘everyone knows that Katrina devastated New Orleans but far fewer people recall that soon afterwards Stanley caused similar havoc and loss of life in Guatemala. This is hardly surprising, since by the end of January 2006 there were 3,105

references to Katrina in the UK papers, whilst Stan rated a mere 34 mentions’ (Franks 2006, 281). Based on the findings of CARMA Report 2006, Suzanne Franks concludes that “there appears to be no link between the scale of a disaster and the media interest it attracts. It is ‘Western self-interest’ which is the ‘pre-condition for significant coverage of a humanitarian crisis”. And thus, ‘Economics is a better guide to press interest than human suffering.’ (Franks 2006, 281-282.) Humanitarian disasters, no matter wherever they occur, deserve a global attention and demand a concerted global response, but that seem to largely depend on how disasters are portrayed in the media, if portrayed at all. However, ‘when humanitarian emergencies are understood by the news media to be caused by people and politics, rather than natural forces and unforeseen calamities, they appear to be regarded as less newsworthy or too complicated to receive the same amount of news interest’ (Cottle 2008, 115). Under reporting, uninformed reporting and mythicization In the previous paragraphs, based on some empirical findings and arguments, we have seen that hidden wars, silent sufferings and humanitarian disasters in the developing world receive minimal attention of the global mainstream media. However, even when they are reported, it is also important to analyze, whether such reporting go into enough depth or just end up scratching the shallow surface. Underreporting as well as fragmented and selected reporting of issues seems to be a problem when

reporting the developing world. In the aftermath of the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti, ‘Cuban doctors were first to provide relief in Haiti, but received little press coverage’ (Fawthrop, 2010). Instances like this seem to signal that the mainstream Western media are guided by a preequipped set of beliefs and ideas that tell them, in advance, who is going to fit as a donor or humanitarian actor in their pre-framed window of news coverage. They seem to be programmed to be uninterested when aid comes from outside the traditional and largely Western humanitarian aid agencies. Tom Fawthrop in his Aljazeera online article argues that ‘western NGOs employ media officers to ensure that the world knows what they are doing’ (Fawthrop, 2010). Uninformed reporting and fragmented reporting also seem to be rife when it comes to reporting the developing world. Again with the Haitian case, ‘One major international news agency's list of donor nations credited Cuba with sending over 30 doctors to Haiti, whereas the real figure stands at more than 350’(Fawthrop, 2010). This example shows that even when the developing world is reported, such reporting have found to be unclear, distorted and to a large extent fragmented and utterly uninformed. Similarly, Rod Chavis believes that Africa’s portrayal in Western media hasn’t been unbiased and neutral. Even when Africa is reported it is often negative and Africa’s strategic importance in the world is forgotton. Chavis(1998). He further states:
Africa's image in the Western Media is not a self-portrait. It is not a

what you see is what you get. Because media conditioning shapes, molds, and monopolizes those images, references to Africa are received sometimes with disdain and contempt. Even African descendants, who have virtually no cultural competence, actually contribute to how Africa is projected globally. Chavis (1998)

many skeletons will there be in the film?" the executive asked. "Well, I hope there will be none," said Dimbleby. The executive said he would get back to him. That was the last he heard about it.”(The Guardian

This author, too, has observed in many Western media outlets that when it comes to reporting events in the developing world, at times, probably to ‘spice up’ their reports, a lot of myths are attached. For instance, Kumari, known as a living goddess in Nepal, attracts a lot of international media attention every year though she doesn’t arouse significant public interest at home. Reports about her in foreign media are attached with a lot of myths, and many reports claim that she is worshipped as God by Nepalis, though, in reality, only a tiny community regards her as a God’s representative and there is not so much public reverence for her. Such media reports are written in a manner that tell the reader that there is a country far away where people are still barbaric and so superstitious that they worship a little ordinary girl as God.

At a time when globalization has engulfed the world, and at a time when nation states are believed to be deeply interdependent, where does this deep incongruity arise from? It seems that there are no easy answers to these hard questions. However, one thing is clear; the global interdependency that we talk about often does seem to be highly unequal, and insanely exploitative, often Western nations talking the helm of ‘mutual coexistence’ and walking the way at their desired speed. While capital and technology can move freely across borders, largely at Western interest and initiation, when it comes to people’s movement, it’s highly selective, restrictive and for a unilateral benefit of particular nation states. These realities make us believe that the world, still, is vastly unequal, divided and exploitative, and the differences between the developed and developing world seem to be arising from the core of these truths. There seem to be an invisible ‘global order’ that sees the developing world as a distant, second, inferior world. In addition, literature also shows that many Western mainstream media do not establish sufficient links, structural connections and imbalances in their reports when it comes to portraying the developing world, which in turn, minimizes the general public’s interest in the West and further accelerates underreporting of the developing world.

Reporters’ plight, ignorance or cultural incompetence? In 2003, when Ethiopia was threatened with the worst famine in its history, Dimbleby wanted to make a Tonight special for ITV and took the idea to a senior ITV executive. "How

Based on the Glasgow Media Group’s studies, Dan Hind, in his Aljazeera article Journalism and the politics of hunger argues that the audiences tend to be engaged in stories about the developing world once they are able to ‘situate what was happening in a broader explanatory context.’ However, ‘as long as foreign news stories were presented as a series of disasters far away that had no connection with events at home, people's interest was weak.’ (Hind, 2011.) ‘Once it was pointed out that Western diamond and oil companies were helping to drive conflict in Angola, for example, people became much more engaged. The problems of ordinary people far away became more, not less, interesting as viewers were offered a structural account.’ (Dan Hind, 2011.) So the way news is reported seems to have a direct connection with audience engagement. However, when the developing world is reported, it is often found to be focused on stories of individual suffering and tragedy and based on the presumed notions and a weak portrayal of how miserable life they are living ‘out there’. No structural trails of global economic and political powers are demonstrated. For instance, many disasters that occur in the developing world are caused by climate change and scientific evidences show that industrialized nations are primarily responsible for global warming and climatic catastrophe. But while reporting such disasters, if the focus is on immediate deaths and damage, but not on what is behind all that, such reporting is not only insufficient, but also lame,

biased and distorted. So there cannot be any disagreement that the reporters also have a duty to inform their audiences with all structural, hidden causes and complexities of the presented topic. On the other hand, the level of independency journalists can actually exercise is questionable as there seem to be political pressures as well as internal pressures from media houses on ‘what to cover and not’. This trend is akin to tyrant states that impose harsh media censorship to fulfill their political aims; however, even the developed world which is often hailed for excellent ‘five star’ press freedom trends and impeccable democracy, is not intact from this malpractice. Reflecting on her experience at the BBC, Gordon Corera, a BBC correspondent states:
‘There are also the political pressures that we come under. On the BBC and on the Today programme we come under a lot of flak for criticizing government policy, particularly when we question the war on terror, whenever we question whether the bombing is working in Afghanistan or should our troops be there? There is a lot of pressure on journalists who are seen as unpatriotic for raising any criticisms, which is a very dangerous situation to be in’ (Corera 2003, 255). This type of pressure and indirect censorship jeopardize journalists’ motivation to critically uncover structural issues, though they might not serve the strategic, and vested, interest of powerful Western nations, that affects millions of lives in the developing world.

Conclusions Modern means of mass communications have changed the way we receive and transmit information, but, apparently, they haven’t replaced the classical media that people have been historically depending on for receiving information as well as shaping their notions on some particular issues. So the general public in the developed world largely depends on the Western mainstream media to know and vicariously access the world. However, for many reasons, various wars and disasters in the developing world do not attract Western mainstream media’s attention and many such tragedies and calamities remain unreported, unnoticed and hidden to the world. As a result, any possible international assistance or

intervention also becomes elusive which consequently perpetuates human suffering in the developing world. We consider today’s world to be vastly interconnected and interdependent, if it is so, it’s a part of our global responsibility to have a cosmopolitan communitarian sense and be ready to help when the humanity suffers and struggles in an unknown corner of the globe. And the media have a crucial role in justly informing the public about such incidents and inviting them for a collective response. However, it is very difficult to say, whether the twenty first century’s ‘neo-liberal’ media is ready to accept this notion.

Chavis, Rod (1998). Africa in the Western Media. Paper presented at the Sixth Annual African Studies Consortium Workshop, October 02,1998. Accessed 03.10.2011 Available at: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Workshop/chavis98.html Constable, Pamela (2007). Demise of the Foreign Correspondent. Accessed: 03.10.2011 Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/02/16/AR2007021601713.html Cottle, Simon (2008). Global Crisis Reporting, Journalism in the global age. Open University Press. Pp 114-116 Fawthrop, Tom (2010). Cuba's aid ignored by the media? Accessed 06.10.2011 Available at: http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2010/01/201013195514870782.html Franks, Suzanne (2006). The CARMA report: Western media coverage of humanitarian disasters. The Political Quarterly. Volume 77, No 2. Pp 281-282 Galtung, Johan & Holmboe, Mari Ruge (1965). The structure of foreign news

The presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus crises in four Norwegian newspapers. Journal of Peace Research 1965 2: 64. Pp 66-68
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Hind, Dan (2011). Journalism and the politics of hunger. Accessed: 05.10.2011 Available at:

How British TV reports famine. The Guardian, 19.10.2009. Accessed: 01.10.2011 Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/oct/19/tvdocumentary-famine Murray, Fromson (2010). Cuba's Rescue Effort in Haiti. Accessed: 04.10.2011 Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/murray-fromson/cubas-rescueeffort-in-ha_b_426631.html Russo, Diana (2010). Is the Foreign News Bureau Part of the Past? Accessed: 03.10.2011 Available at: http://www.globaljournalist.org/stories/2010/01/30/is-the-foreignnews-bureau-part-of-the-past/ Thussu, Daya Kishan &Des,Freedman 2003. War and the media: reporting conflict 24/7. Sage Publications Ltd. Pp1, ISBN: 0-7619-4313-7

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