Darfur: Attention and Deterrence

Several posts over recent days have pointed to the discrepancy between media attention and levels of mortality. The analysis of media coverage of Darfur during and after the height of hostilities in 2003-04 finds that there is a striking inverse correlation between violence and media coverage — as killings decline, coverage increased. The contrast between Congo and Darfur also points to this inverse relationship.

One response to this is to cry foul. Surely media coverage should track the level of the crisis? And especially when that media coverage is concentrating on the horror stories, surely it should faithfully describe the level and pattern of violence?

But another perspective on this is to focus on what media coverage does. There is good circumstantial evidence that it is responsible (in part) for driving down the violence and helping reduce famine mortality. So, even if the media are somehow distorting our picture of the crises, are they not performing an even more useful function in saving lives?

A similar argument could be made for human rights investigations and the ICC. If we see the goal of the ICC as bringing suspects to court, it has not succeeded (at least not yet). But if the goal of the ICC were bringing scrutiny to Darfur and helping bring down the level of killing, then there is evidence to suggest that it (along with the Cassese investigation and other human rights monitoring) has been quite successful. The level of killing in Darfur dropped off when the first African Union military observers arrived, and again when the Cassese report was published and the ICC referral followed. During July last year–when the Prosecutor announced his request for an arrest warrant against Pres. Bashir–and early March this year–when the Pre-Trial Chamber issued the arrest warrant–the government was at pains to urge calm and to keep its forces restrained. For the last two months, killings in Darfur have been low.

We also see this in the Sudan government’s response to the threat of a humanitarian crisis following the expulsion of the aid agencies in March. Government departments surprised many with their capacity to fill the relief supply gap. It is one of the reasons why there has been no generalized humanitarian crisis.

Perhaps the most effective international measure to keep down lethal violence is the simplest: paying attention. And maybe everything else is secondary, including exactly what that attention is, and what is threatened in consequence.

But if the intent is to solve the political problem generating the violence, then a different strategy is surely needed–one that is based on political analysis and diplomacy. For Darfur and Sudan, what is needed now is to treat the service delivery challenge as a technical issue and shift the focus of international attention to Sudan’s political process.

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6 thoughts on “Darfur: Attention and Deterrence

  1. According to Unamid 22 people were killed in Darfur during april,and half of them were combatants,It appears that the more the violence reduces the harder the right wing media feel they have to work to insure that their image of Darfur is the one that is universally accepted,hence the inverse relation between violence and media coverage.
    The Media coverage of Darfur has become increasingly disassociated with the facts on the grounds, most reporting of Darfur happens in the US covering protestors and rallies but little accurate coverage of what their actually protesting is given.

  2. Dear Alex,

    I am not sure if that media issue was not just a normal result of Darfur not being under media attention until 2003-2004 when something big happens and brought the attentions of every one. It was not easy after that for the media coverage to back down. May be in anticipation of something similar going to happen again? may be as a result of guilt feeling? I don’t really believe that there is a scientific/logical justification to the correlation between the intensity of violence and media coverage in Darfur apart from some interest-driven, well structured wishful speculations here and there, unless we have a comprehensive study for this relation over statistically significant number of cases that proves beyond doubt that such a correlation does exits. I also think, sometimes, of the futility of making sense out of cases that happen to make no or just little sense.

    On the other hand, I think that crediting the media for the reduction of violence post 2003-2004 is just a fictional claim. Neither the GoS forces, nor the repel groups give that big attention to the media, definitely not in Sudan. They both got tough skins and are capable of tolerating any media nuisance.

    It might be true that the media coverage had some effects in direction of international humanitarian aid to Darfur, but it would be too naive to exclude that effect from bigger picture of the global political economy.

  3. Alex his point about paying attention is a valid one. The Sudanese government must have also got scared when all the satellite photos of destroyed villages were published.
    However Alex is right that the focus should be on the political solution. Perhaps the emphasis should not only be on international attention, but more on local power structures, leadership and accountability. For this local attention and good quality information is essential. It is a pity that the people of Darfur had to wait for so long to get good quality news in local languages. Radio Darfur, or Radio Dabanga (http://www.radiodabanga.org) started broadcasting in december 2008, but could have a transformational impact on local’s knowledge of what is going in Darfur and help them to hold their leaders accountable. First impressions are that it is very popular. If the media in Khartoum had been more free to report on Darfur in 2003 it could also have had a big impact.

    The ICC paying attention can be a deterrent is what many hoped for and maybe it can. In the Central African Republic the government’s presidential guard and the regular army were committing many crimes against civilians in the north in 2005-7. Amnesty, Waging Peace and Human Rights Watch recorded this accurately and soon after the ICC announced investigations in 2007 the presidential guard was withdrawn from these areas. Many people think the president got afraid of the ICC when it announced it would investigate ongoing crimes and not only the crimes of 2002-3 the president wanted investigated. Bozize even wrote to the UNSC in aug 2008 to ask to recognise the courts being able and competent to deal with these crimes. So the ICC paying attention can perhaps work. Its work in Columbia can also be interpreted this way.

    So paying attention can help and that is why an independent media in Sudan itself is so important.

  4. We need to be a bit catious about the figure of 22 deaths for April; until all the investigation reports are complete there is always room for adjustment. For example it’s not clear to what extent the fighting between JEM and SLA-Minawi has been fully accounted for in this figure.

    I would not suggest that the media was the only, or even the primary, reason for the reduction in killing and in famine deaths. Nor the ICC. Other reasons are also very important, most of them to do with the situation on the ground and in particular the evolution of the war. When the major government offensives of 2003-04 concluded in March 2004, with the rebels in retreat, the level of violence dropped. The media cannot be credited with that. But when the SLA took the war to eastern Darfur later in 2004, we did not see the same scale of violence in response. It is likely that media scrutiny played a role in restricting the level of violence.

  5. “We need to be a bit catious about the figure of 22 deaths for April; until all the investigation reports are complete there is always room for adjustment. For example it’s not clear to what extent the fighting between JEM and SLA-Minawi has been fully accounted for in this figure.”

    your right, there are ofcourse incidents which might have been missed and the figure will be slightly adjusted upwards, but my point is even if this figure was multiplied several times it would still fit in to the classical definition of a low scale conflict, and the ratio of combatants to civilians recorded last year strongly supports the conclusion that civilians are not beeing targeted.

  6. Once again Prof. Reeves has been poring over every dot and comma of the statements by Rudolf Adada and John Holmes, finding the smallest discrepancy, and accusing them of mendacity etc etc. Its enough to send even the most devoted student into a deep slumber. If you are sleepless tonight, turn to http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article31163 . A particular gem is his quoting John Holmes predicting humanitarian crisis in March and saying it didn’t happen in May. Reeves’s explanation is that Holmes was being politically expedient. But hold on a minute! What actually happened? Holmes went to Darfur to see for himself and changed his mind when he saw the reality on the ground!!! As this is something Prof Reeves will never do, he will never have the chance to correct his own errors.

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