AnalysesArmed Violence

What Is Responsible For The Underreporting Of Africa’s Conflicts?

Last year, “there were 273,279 online articles worldwide about the new Barbie movie, but only 1,049 articles about the humanitarian crisis in Angola”, according to the humanitarian organisation CARE International.

Africa has a history of conflicts that have remained unresolved for many years.

The civil war in South Sudan lasted over six years, with over 3.9 million people displaced from their homes. The Burkina Faso Conflict that started in 2016 led to at least 7,600 deaths in 2023 alone. The unstable conflicts in DR Congo have led to approximately six million deaths. There have been at least 6000 civilian deaths due to the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis. There are many more deadly crises in other parts of the continent.

These unrests have resulted in significant loss of lives and livelihoods and created a high demand for humanitarian support, with families displaced from their homes, children at risk of physical and sexual violence, and many facing acute food insecurity.

Sudan, Somalia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria were recorded as having some of the deadliest conflicts across the world in 2023, recording between 4,700 and 9,800 deaths each.

The Global Humanitarian Overview for 2022 from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that close to 14 million people were acutely food insecure in the Sahel, a semi-arid region in western and north-central Africa. Insecurity in the region has also rapidly deteriorated and displacement in the Central Sahel increased by 30 per cent between 2020 and 2021.

Does the media have a role to play in all this?

Yes, answered Eric Chinje, Chief Executive Officer of the African Media Initiative (AMI). He explained that the role involves building an informed society, spreading credible information, and provoking conversations capable of transforming people’s conditions.

CARE International, a global humanitarian organisation that has researched the coverage of conflicts around the world, emphasises that “change happens through attention,” which the media is able to grab. 

When journalists thoroughly cover a crisis, they not only show how serious it is but also help gather support towards peacebuilding and rehabilitation. Executive Director of the Media Career Development Network, Lekan Otufodunrin, points out that without media reporting, crises will be localised. And so the media helps to enforce change by “drawing attention to what is happening, so that those who are affected can know the magnitude, and those who can do something about it will be alert to the severity of the issue”.

What this means is that inadequate coverage of conflicts in Africa tends to leave many people in the dark about the severity and implications of those conflicts.

This is already happening. For example, only African countries were featured in the ranking of the 10 most underreported humanitarian crises in the world in 2022 by CARE International.

The non-profit noted that, in 2022, “there were 50 times more online media articles about the release of iPhone 14 than the humanitarian crises in Angola”.

Again, last year, “there were 273,279 online articles worldwide about the new Barbie movie, but only 1,049 articles about the humanitarian crisis in Angola. Yet, more than seven million people in Southern Africa have been affected by droughts, floods, and hunger.”

Dr Chinedu Eugenia Anumudu, a media scholar and lecturer at Baze University, does not think that African media has made a significant impact and progress in crisis reporting over the years. 

“Unfortunately, anytime I tune into African news, they keep repeating stories,” she noted. Whenever she notices a stretch of repetition, she tunes in to international media platforms like Sky News, Al Jazeera, or BBC. 

“However, 90 per cent of their news isn’t about Africans; the information there [at the moment] is about the conflict in Isreal,” she added.

Andrea Barschdof-Hager, Managing Director of CARE International, observed last year that the persistent nature of the crises in Africa has made it harder to raise awareness. It is why, more recently, global attention has focused on violence in Europe and the Middle East.

Otufodunrin says while local media organisations are doing their best, the challenge is that they often pay attention to issues that are breaking and ignore them after the audience has gotten used to hearing about them.

Another problem, according to investigative journalist Beevan Magoni, is the lack of unity in the African media space, “the lack of access to an African-empowered media powerhouse where Africans channel all their stories.” 

“Europe has BBC, DW, and others. America has CNN and Fox News. Asia has CCTV and Al Jazeera,” he observed.

He also noted that media on the continent is highly censored, and “attempts to broadcast the reality of the African crisis are quickly shut down because of the petty political interests of those in power”.

Amnesty International reported that in 2022, “authorities across Eastern and Southern Africa escalated their attacks against Journalists and press freedom across the region to suppress reporting of corruption and human rights violations.”

Last year, there were at least 12 major internet shutdowns in six African countries, including Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, and Zimbabwe, where news websites were blocked, with the government using this as a means to restrict press freedom and access to key information. 

There have also been many recent cases of journalists getting killed, arrested, and persecuted across the continent.

Another point to note is that the size of economies influences which parts of the world receive more attention from the media when there is a crisis.

Indermit Gill, the World Bank’s Chief Economist, stated, “The latest conflict in the Middle East comes on the heels of the biggest shock to commodity markets since the 1970s – Russia’s war against Ukraine. That had disruptive effects on the global economy that persist to this day. Policymakers will need to be vigilant. If the conflict were to escalate, the global economy would face a dual energy shock for the first time in decades- not just from the war in Ukraine but also from the Middle East.”

Economics affects press coverage in another way, too, notes Dr Anumudu. Oftentimes, local newsrooms cannot afford to send journalists to communities affected by conflict. They also cannot afford to pay correspondents or freelancers in these regions to report up-to-date information, thereby leading to limited access to information.

Magoni suggests that African media will not evolve to become more effective in reporting crises as long as governments keep using regulatory bodies to clamp down on their operations through sanctions and other strategies.

It would help, he added, “if Africa can get a single trustworthy media house to tell its stories, set the media agenda for Africans, and give people reasons to believe in it.” 

“It is going to cost a lot,” he said, “but it is doable.”

Additionally, Dr Anumudu says that for reporting to be successful, appropriate funds should be allocated for thorough investigations and to fully pay journalists, correspondents, or freelancers for the quality of their work.

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