|President Abdullahi Yusuf and prime minister M Ali Gedi
The BBC’s proclivities to highlighting the negative over the positive, or street fighting over peace making & reconciliation, the shooting of one Mogadishu district official by snipers was given a coverage that could be considered wide even by the BBC’s standards. The incident was reported with the usual rambling that it was yet another sign of growing chaos in the city. What was conspicuously missing from that report was, of course, the one fact that could/should have been the stuff of journalistic curiosity. In fact, what the BBC conveniently ‘failed’ to highlight, but a fact that was duly reported by local media outlets, was the venue of the shooting and the circumstances in which the incident took place. The concerned officer was shot-- lo & behold!--while watching soccer tournament in a stadium in the presence of thousands of spectators!
Djibouti, September 15, 2007 - There are few things that do not lose their currency once introduced as news items on the international media outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC, CNN, and since recently, Al Jazeera. More often than not this happens because the subject matters of the news just do not go away—lingering on both in the minds of the public as well as on the ground they transpire. The Middle East Conflict, the Sri Lankan Civil War, the War on Terror & others such are among the long-drawn-out and notorious newsmakers. Looked at against the backdrop of their magnitude and abysmal duration, it would not come as a surprise should they stay on forever. The question, however, is: given the inordinate amount of coverage conflicts receive from the Media, how much of that coverage could indeed be considered fair & balanced? If recent experience is any guide, most reporting by the major media outlets leaves very much to be desired. More often than not, developments are spun out of proportion thereby leading to the further worsening of conflicts.
Violence is given more coverage than peaceful overtures. Wild guesses and
categorical conclusions permeate much of the reporting about conflicts. All
told, there is a dangerous trend in the offing—one that consciously or inadvertently exalts violence while emboldening its perpetrators. As the experience in Somalia the last couple months indicates, this trend has indeed been successfully made into an art form by the likes of the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and the New York Times.
One of the reasons why their coverage can be—and it sure is—dangerous has to do with the criteria used by these media giants in determining what developments they consider to be newsworthy or not. A look at the trends in the way the major media outlets cover violence in general and terrorist violence in particular would confirm one’s fear that journalism has degenerated into a tribute to—and an exhibition of—morbidity and chaos. In contemporary media lexicon, newsworthiness has taken on a strange new connotation as something that has only to do with gruesome scenes of death and graphic portrayals of mayhem. In a world that faces all kinds of traumatizing developments day in and day out, this wholly romantic obsession of the media with violence is anything but reassuring. It is becoming ever more problematic as is clearly indicated by the growing number of televised shooting sprees & videotaped ‘martyrdom’ notes of suicide bombers, which, much to the chagrin of right-minded people has helped set off a chain reaction of violence that further begets violence.
Witnessing how this perverse standard of newsworthiness continues to bring decidedly sinister results is a really excruciating experience. We can see all along how these media outlets have come to play an increasingly destructive role by fanning the flames of destruction and suicidal adventure all over the world. Wittingly or unwittingly, the Western media has also become complicit with the perpetrators of terror by giving them a much needed morale boost and a creeping sense of newsworthiness that keeps fueling such unruly overtures. Journalism has quite simply become some sort of syndicated exercise in a macabre circus that goes around in the name of freedom of media when in fact it is an ugly profiteering preying on the escalation of violence everywhere.
This behavior definitely constitutes an uncanny act of abetting terror whether we like it or not. What defies understanding is how such a misguided behavior is pursued with impunity while being peddled as a hallmark of freedom of information or whatever fancy ideal they would have us believe it signifies. All the same, this reckless exercise has continued unabated. Clearly this highly romanticized coverage of brazen violence is further emboldening terrorists of all color & size to do everything in their powers to occupy the limelight 24/7.
The Al Zwara TV channel of the Middle East has mimicked into perfection this unwholesome form of the BBC and Al Jazeera. Al Zwara has even succeeded in outdoing its western mentors so much so that it has for a long time now been permanently airing a 24/7 rerun of grizzly images of bombing, beheading and suicide missions as part of the “fight against the infidels”. The effect of this satellite TV version of the “fight against the infidels” could not have been more catastrophic: the insurgency in Iraq has shown no sign of declining despite the much-hyped Surge. The US government’s frantic attempts to take the channel off-air have not seen any measure of success either, despite the bullying and the cloak-and-dagger approaches repeatedly used. The US has instead settled for a measure-for-measure solution. Not to be outdone by such high-end tactics of terrorists and greatly disturbed by the extent of its virulent outcomes, the US government decided to launch a rival channel—the Al Hurra—in Arabic to counter the messages of the Al Zwara. That Ms Rice was exasperated by the images aired by the Al Zwara is understandable. However, the fact that the CNN and the BBC unabashedly partake of similar ignominy in reporting about places like Somalia often goes totally unnoticed by the State Department is difficult to understand. As far as glorifying terror and violence goes—as is particularly the case with regard to Somalia—the BBC and CNN too have joined the ranks of Al Zwara.
The Media and the Somali Conflict
In the context of the Somali conflict, the obsession of these media houses with violence and the extensive coverage given are exerting a highly destructive pressure on the prospect of lasting peace and stability in the war-torn nation. A single incident of violence is given ten times as wide coverage as lots of peaceful developments that may have huge symbolic resonance. Almost all reporting about Somalia ever since the removal of the extreme elements of the UIC is characterized by the kind of violence- mongering that has become the distinct hallmark of modern journalism a la Al Jazeera or New York Times. Reporting depends for the most part on freelancers who are outrageously casual about their facts and assumptions, all the while substituting their opinions for the facts on the ground. In the most likely event that there would not even be such a freelancer, news reports often quote “unnamed Sources” with old archived footages of ‘Street Fights’ played all along in order to create the impression that the ‘report’ is a reliable one. In fact the footages might very well be from Sera Leone or Liberia. In an attempt to conjure up images of brutal terror and bloodbath, hyperbolic parallels between Iraq & Somalia or Somalia and Afghanistan are very easily drawn. As for calculating casualty figures, or the number of internally displaced people, one can only wonder where the numbers come from. The standard format among the great majority of the media houses is the hackneyed reference to Hundreds or Thousands of dead and wounded, or close to half a million Internally Displaced People etc. with out so much as batting an eyelash.
Al Jazeera has made it its business to ceaselessly air footages of dead bodies and destroyed trucks day in and day out. In the most egregious display of folly, if not outright duplicity, Al Jazeera repeatedly aired a video footage that ‘shows’ a bunch of rather cheerful-looking youngsters allegedly “fighting it out with the Ethiopian Forces during the worst ever street fight” in Mogadishu. By the way, the worst ever street fight interestingly happens to be fought just about every day. This particular video footage clearly was a fake one. Even a blind can tell that. Forget that street fighting is no laughing matter that would induce broad smiles such as in the faces of the twenty-some things in the videos! Also forget that taking pictures of such a good definition in the midst of “the fiercest ever street combat” would most certainly require a dead cameraman—or an Achilles-incarnate wearing a pair of bullet-proof boots--- hence a practical impossibility! That was clearly amateur home video of gun-brandishing youth playing roles in a poorly written street fight drama. For anyone with their right mind, let alone for Al Jazeera—a media behemoth that prides itself on its ‘Fearless Journalism’—to put on air for months on end such video footages—on the pretense that they are genuine ones—definitely amounts to a travesty of media integrity. For Goodness’ sake, nothing can be more preposterous!
The thing is, though, perhaps for the people in Al Jazeera, what seems to matter is not so much the truth as the question whether they can at the end of the day gleefully perpetuate that ghoulish picture of Mogadishu forever engulfed in unending turmoil. This clearly represents a callous display of malignant indifference to the plight of the ordinary Somalis who are straining every nerve & muscle to get on with putting their miserable lives together. Tragic as this callousness certainly is, one cannot help wondering how far these people are willing to go to prove their predictions they tossed from the very outset about a prospect of “Intractable and unwinnable war” Ethiopia was up against. The cruel irony in this sad example of an almost religious resolve to fulfill one’s prophesy could not be lost on anyone with the slightest notion of fairness and commonsense.
But then again, here too, Al Jazeera is not alone. The irresponsibility of other media giants also seems to know no bounds at all. For the BBC, it is hardly news when literally thousands of elders representing the cross-section of the Somali Society have successfully brought to a close forty-fives days of deliberation on peace and national reconciliation in Mogadishu. If anything, this is just a footnote and nothing of interest for the BBC and its likes. In a stark contrast to this, however, they would fall over themselves to report on any isolated cases of shootings or explosion of unattended ordnances as “just another sign that Mogadishu is slipping back into chaos”. In a quintessential BBC-esque way, you would often hear lengthy details of the “growing chaos” following this or that incident as long as it involves some sort of explosion or shooting.
This was exactly how the BBC reported about an explosion of Improvised Explosive Device (IEDs) that killed two women in the streets of the Somali Capital. The reporter was quick to suggest that the situation was becoming ever more hopeless. But the report made hardly any mention of the fact that the victims were killed while cleaning the street—a surprising feat of normalcy which should have in all seriousness been much of a news in a city that is not given to such luxuries as street cleaning women or children playing soccer. This has indeed become the hard and fast rule as far as all reporting about Somalia is concerned.
In a particular instance that typically illustrates the BBC’s proclivities to highlighting the negative over the positive, or street fighting over peace making & reconciliation, the shooting of one Mogadishu district official by snipers was given a coverage that could be considered wide even by the BBC’s standards. The incident was reported with the usual rambling that it was yet another sign of growing chaos in the city. What was conspicuously missing from that report was, of course, the one fact that could/should have been the stuff of journalistic curiosity. In fact, what the BBC conveniently ‘failed’ to highlight, but a fact that was duly reported by local media outlets, was the venue of the shooting and the circumstances in which the incident took place. The concerned officer was shot-- lo & behold!--while watching soccer tournament in a stadium in the presence of thousands of spectators!
In light of the fact that this was taking place in the very ‘hopelessly chaotic’ Mogadishu the BBC so passionately likes to portray; and in light also of the fact that the Stadium was the insurgents’ stronghold barely months ago—hence off-limits, as it were, to normal life—it would/should have been a hundred times more fitting that wider coverage be given to that part of the story surgically left out by the All-Knowing BBC than just harping on the same old string. But then again, violence—real or imagined—is more newsworthy than a story about thousands of poorly-clad and emaciated civilians who had the ‘galls’ to watch soccer in earnest apparently oblivious of the BBC’s “continued violence”!
This sad media connivance at abetting violence still continues with all positive developments and indications of national reconciliation deliberately insulated from any significant attention or coverage. It is therefore no wonder that the successful completion of the reconciliation conference after forty five days of fruitful deliberations has passed without so much as a headline in the major international media outlets such as the BBC & Al Jazeera. This should and could have been the propitious occasion to highlight and capitalize on the need for understanding and the renunciation of all sorts of violence. But the media’s pontificating about the ‘fragility of peace’ goes on unhindered.
True to form, these same media giants nonetheless have for the last couple days been covering with much fervor Eritrea’s variant of the ‘peace and reconciliation conference’ convened in Asmara. The conference—also ironically labeled as “conference for the liberation and reconstitution of Somalia”—boasts the participation of ‘hundreds’ of representatives. Interestingly these ‘representatives’ are none other than the hennaed remnants of the ousted UIC leadership—the Aweys and the Sharifs once again masquerading as the saviors of the Somali people. That the international media would give the lunatics in Asmara the coverage it denied to the otherwise unthinkable reconciliation conference that took place in Mogadishu can only support my contention that peace is of little or no interest to the media that ‘puts the news first’ or to those that practice ‘fearless journalism’. That the first order of business for the Asmara desperados was the usual saber-rattling and ‘we will attack Ethiopia’ ranting makes their conference even of more appeal to the BBC than the one held in Mogadishu with thousands of delegates from all over Somalia participating. The prospect of peace—as precious as it may seem to the average Somalis and to all who wish them well—it is too boring a story to merit even the scantiest of media coverage. This is a disturbing pattern indeed.
Please, Give the Somalis a Break!
The same obsession with violence and destruction however will continue to guarantee a more than casual coverage on their news reports and magazines with the usual hyperboles and shallow analyses clogging the airwaves. Prospects of peace and signs of betterment of lives do not deserve attention except the scant references in the form of footnotes. We have tried to illustrate how the media’s obsession with violence and the coverage they give to it as well its perpetrators has come to bear heavily on the dynamics around violent conflicts. This they do-- not only through unfair and totally unbalanced reporting but also through an obsessive coverage of violence that goes beyond the logical limits of freedom of information. More importantly, we can see that the media has become part of the problem in conflicts in the horn of Africa rather than playing a constructive role in the quest for a lasting peace and stability. Quite simply, the behavior of the media seems to strongly corroborate my contention that new rules of engagement seem to have been adopted as far as post-modern journalism is concerned.
We are likely to continue to hear about the powerlessness of the people and Government of Somalia in the face of “the Insurgents” which will then perhaps help reinforce the inflated self-image these desperate lunatics have of themselves. Also add to this the zealous coverage of pro-jihadist ranting of the Eritrean leadership coupled with the tenuous & precarious nature of inter-clan dynamics in Somalia in general and that of the capital city in particular. But all of this is as much the result of the media’s hyperbolic reporting as it could have some grains to it.
Obviously, there is hardly any interest in assisting the prospect of peace for Somalis. Even when there appears to be a merely casual interest in the topic, it is more often than not directed at highlighting violence and saber-rattling that had for the better part of fifteen years been the mundane realities of Somalia. It would be all too naïve to expect any meaningful commitment to truth and peace on the part of the media giants. They are a thousand times more interested in the ugly images of destruction than in any prospect of peace there could be anyway. So the most sensible thing we can ask of the BBC, al Jazeera and the likes—and the least they could do to help the Somalis help themselves—is to please give the Somalis a break—to ignore them altogether as they had stoically demonstrated for more than fifteen years—that is before they developed a sudden interest as soon as the momentum for peace kicked in with the ouster of the UIC!
Only then would the Somalis be able to build on what chance of peace there is—and rise, once again, from the ashes!
Opinion Contributed by: Getachew K. Reda, Ethiopian ENA