On any given day, in any given news cycle, numerous conflicts and catastrophes around the world claim untold lives and cause massive human suffering. As I write this, the Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts online portal is monitoring at least 110 armed conflicts; deadly flooding is taking place in countries across East Africa as well as in Yemen, Italy, and the Dominican Republic; people are still suffering the effects of devastating earthquakes in Afghanistan, Nepal, and Morocco; and an Icelandic town has been abandoned in the face of a looming volcanic eruption.
It can be impossible for anyone, let alone journalists dedicated to covering humanitarian crises and emergencies, to keep up. Yet some situations rise above the din and seem to make the world sit up and take notice. I was in Somalia in 2011 during one such event. For months, people had been dying daily of hunger and related complications. Humanitarian agencies had rung alarm bells to little avail. The world seemed deaf to their pleas till, in July, the UN declared that the threshold for a famine had been breached. Suddenly, Somalia was transported to the centre of the world’s attention: reporters, TV crews, and celebrity news anchors from all major international networks battled to get in and report; politicians and dignitaries came; food flooded in, first by the plane load and later by ship. That one word, famine – coupled with the withdrawal from Mogadishu of the al-Shabab militant group a few weeks later – changed everything.
The term “genocide” is generally presumed to have a similar impact on global attention, indicating the crime that stands above all others. Coined in 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, as the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, it does not refer to mere mass killings of individuals but rather to the attempted erasure of a people. The UN Genocide Convention, which has been ratified by over three quarters of the world’s countries, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Such acts include killings, “serious bodily or mental harm”, the deliberate infliction of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction”, and trying to prevent births or taking away children.
Simply branding a situation as a genocide, or a potential one, does not guarantee international action to stop it. Just since October, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has warned of the potential for genocide in the conflicts in Ethiopia and Sudan. Thirty-six other independent UN experts have described Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as “a genocide in the making”. Yet there is little concerted international action to prevent escalation and, with the exception of the bombardment of Gaza, relatively little international media attention paid to either the warnings or the conflicts.
And even when they pay attention, the track record of the global press in covering unfolding genocides has not been particularly good. For example, in the wake of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides in the early 1990s, Western media coverage was criticised for failing to accurately characterise the horrors in a way that would mobilise global public opinion.
There are several lessons to be taken from Rwanda in particular, many of which can be gleaned from a collection of papers and reflections from journalists and academics titled The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. One is the need for reporters to familiarise themselves and their audiences with the history and context of the conflict. In Rwanda, there were few international outlets with reporters on the ground as the violence began. The few who came took a long time to recognise and accurately reflect what was happening. In her chapter in the book, Linda Melvern, an investigative journalist and author of two books on the genocide, says that the Western press initially misrepresented the genocide as “ancient tribal hatreds… uncontrollable tribal savagery about which nothing could be done”.
Another lesson is the advantage of local expertise. While coverage of the genocide on the African continent in many ways shared the same apathy, a comparison between coverage in two major African newspapers (in Kenya and Nigeria) and that from the Western press is revealing. “Reports in both papers attempted to explore the background of the crisis and its greater implications,” Dr Emmanuel C. Alozie, professor of media communications at Governors State University in Illinois, found. “This is important considering that the world press is often accused of failing to do so. The ability of the African press to provide background could be attributed to their greater understanding of underlying matters that affect the continent.”
While the media landscape has been changed radically in the last 30 years by the rise of the internet, these lessons remain relevant for the coverage of genocides today. In reporting on the brutal bombardment of Gaza, the international press has faced similar criticisms of perpetrating dehumanising tropes, ignoring historical context, and presenting the killing of Palestinians as tragic but acceptable. Unlike Rwanda, this time around, there has been a game changer: the ability of Palestinian journalists and activists to bypass media gatekeepers and directly reach online audiences with images, testimonies, and descriptions of the unvarnished horror.
Coupled with the increased ability of online audiences to put pressure on media, the brave work of Palestinian journalists, who are themselves being killed by the dozens, has resulted in limited but appreciable changes in the tone of Western coverage. There is, for example, less insistence that Palestinians and their supporters “condemn Hamas” before they can be given a hearing, and a greater willingness to question the assertions of Israeli officials. The BBC’s own journalists have decried the “double standard in how civilians are seen”, and almost 300 Australian journalists have signed a public letter urging “newsroom leaders to be as clear-eyed in their coverage of atrocities committed by Israel as they are of those committed by Hamas”. This mirrors appeals by Mark Doyle, the BBC correspondent who spent more time in Rwanda during the genocide than any other foreign journalist, to his editors that it was “a very serious misrepresentation… to describe the killings simply as ‘the slaughter of civilians’ or ‘the mass killings’ without explaining who was killing whom”.
The responsibility of the ethical journalist extends beyond simply acknowledging that a genocide may be happening. Media studies professor Lauren Kogen argues that “the act of telling a story in such a way that the distant sufferer is ultimately ignored by the media audience” is harmful journalistic practice, and has called for new media ethics frameworks that acknowledge the obligations journalists have as human beings in a globalised world. She suggests that ethical reporting should “encourage the viewer to see the distant sufferer as worthy of succour”, empower audiences, and emphasise social obligations to help end the suffering.
Around the world, there is a push to develop similar frameworks for centring suffering and responses to it, including ethical storytelling guidelines developed for humanitarian agencies. A powerful framework is decolonisation – which The New Humanitarian has adopted as part of its 5-year strategy and defines as telling humanitarian stories primarily from the perspective and for the benefit of the communities experiencing the crisis, as well as decentring the Western gaze.
Decolonisation requires journalists to ask themselves the question that researchers Richard Stupart and Katherine Furman posed: What, morally speaking, are they doing in conflicts (or in zones of humanitarian crises)? Are they serving a voyeuristic impulse, or does their journalism serve a higher purpose – to give victims the dignity of being seen while denying audiences the comfort of ignorance and perpetrators the silence of complicity?
In the context of an unfolding genocide, the latter requires empathising with victims rather than hiding behind a false veil of “objectivity”; challenging narratives that portray the killing as incomprehensible, necessary, inevitable, or unavoidable; and being intentional about telling stories that humanise victims, that encourage audiences to identify with the victims, and that prompt action to stop the atrocities.
Every year, on 9 December, the world marks the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime, as well as the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Perhaps this is a good time for the global media to reflect on how its reporting can help push the world towards achieving those goals.
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