2003: All Quiet on the Western Front?
Recently on this blog, an interesting question was posed: where was Save Darfur “and its advocacy and influence” in 2003? It is a good question, but seems to valorise advocacy excessively (as has this whole Mamdani / Save Darfur debate) when it has not (yet) supplanted the media as the Fourth Estate. Undoubtedly, there is a degree of cross-pollination between the two, and the conflict has been further entrenched on both their watches. However, it is also necessary to ask where were the media in 2003? Getting to the bottom of this can help shed light on the foundations upon which advocates such as Save Darfur built.
During the calendar year following 26 February 2003 (for arguments sake, the attack on Golo is taken to be the start of the conflict), five articles about Darfur appeared in the British mainstream media, three of which were news-in-brief in the Independent (culled from newswires) – a combined total of 165 words. The other two were in the Guardian (both in early 2004). By this stage, the frequency of attacks had peaked, according to statistics used by the Prosecution in preparing their case at the International Criminal Court.
This virtual silence seems counter-intuitive from today’s perspective, as this was a large chunk of the period of high-intensity conflict that set the tone for much of the future media coverage and advocacy as characterised by Save Darfur. Nevertheless, the very low exposure of Darfur in the British media in 2003 is a matter of record, and is a state of affairs replicated among major publications in the US.
If a particular subject is missing from a newspaper, the explanation is that there is no editorial appetite for it. Undoubtedly, Khartoum actively opposed reporting from Darfur. In fact, then-minister of information and communication, Al-Zahawi Ibrahim Malik, in March 2003 was already complaining that the media “had magnified events and portrayed untrue facts” (13 March 2003, Al-Khartoum). Amnesty International in July 2003 drew attention to the case of Yusuf Al-Beshir Musa, a correspondent of Al-Sahafa in Nyala, South Darfur, who was arrested and beaten by the security forces “apparently because he wrote about the destruction of Sudan air force planes and helicopters in El Fashir airport by the Sudan Liberation Army.” Having said that, Sudan normally fares better than many other countries in the neighbourhood (such as Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, and Libya among others) in the Reporters Without Borders Annual Press Freedom Index, having kept a cushion of 24-38 other countries in between them and least free country press-wise in the world since these records began (2002). However, its lowest ever ranking was 2003.
Nonetheless, a wide range of sources were available to journalists potentially covering Darfur, which was most certainly on the radar of newswires in early 2003 (among others, Agence France Presse, the Associated Press, Reuters, the Pan African News Agency, United Press International and Integrated Regional Information Networks were reporting Darfur then).
The Arab media has been criticised in the past for its scant regard for Darfur, but it did cover the region in 2003. For example, a report on Al-Jazeera prompted then-Governor of North Darfur Lt-Gen Ibrahim Sulayman to refute on Sudanese TV on 27 February 2003 its claims that a rebel movement had occupied Golo. A further exempli gratia: the attack on Al-Fasher airport was reported by a number of Sudanese outlets (print and broadcast), and regional news agencies and newspapers, including Egypt (MENA), the Gulf (Al-Watan, Qatar), Jordan (Al-Bawaba), the Saudi Press Agency, and the London-based Arabic-language newspapers Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat.
However, one caveat to mention is that the freedom given to these agencies and their staff to report is another matter, as is the appetite they themselves had to report in any depth; Darfur has never been an ideal reporting environment for a wide range of reasons, not just government obstruction.
The one British newspaper to report the attack on Al-Fashir airport, the Independent on Sunday (27 April 2003), then reported nothing further until nine months later (24 December 2003) because nothing in its opinion happened there that was newsworthy, though this was not the opinion of the various outlets mentioned above.
In fact, it was NGOs that began drawing attention to Darfur – this much is confirmed in one of the early broadsides to a dormant public about Darfur. After several attempts and what amounts to sanitizing for public consumption, the Washington Post published a commentary by Eric Reeves (Unnoticed Genocide, 25 February 2004) in which the opening paragraphs quote both Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, an organisation that the author writes “has led the way in reporting on Darfur.”
This was an accurate observation. For example, Amnesty noted the “deteriorating situation” in Darfur in February 2003. The International Crisis Group likewise pre-dated mainstream media interest with Sudan’s Other Wars (25 June 2003), as did Sudan: Empty promises? Human rights violations in government-controlled areas (15 July 2003), again from Amnesty. A 3 February 2004 report, Darfur: “Too many people killed for no reason”, yet again from Amnesty, coincided with the start of much greater media interest in Darfur.
Incidentally, one further avenue of study is to trace the evolution of language used to describe Darfur in NGO work and the media; Amnesty in July 2003 referred to an emerging conflict between “˜sedentary groups’ and “˜nomadic groups’, terms that are contextualised – but which would be simplified in the future to “˜Africans’ and “˜Arabs’ in the absence of sufficient contextualisation.
However, the reports produced by NGOs are not categorised in the same way as articles produced by journalism. While newspaper reporters are by definition (textbook, at least) “˜objective’ and required to provide “˜both sides of the story’ (in news articles, as opposed to opinion pieces), NGOs have no similar, developed branch of ethics requiring them to do so. In fact, they profess to lobby for a particular outcome: Amnesty campaigns for “human rights for all,” while the ICG says it provides, among other things, “sharp-edged policy prescription and high-level advocacy.” No newspaper or news agency would claim the same.
Undoubtedly, this is a vital role to fulfill in civil society, especially in areas, such as Darfur, where the media simply cannot cover everything, if at all, to the tastes of a wide range of consumers. Darfur in 2003 was at best an esoteric subject, at worst almost completely ignored by the mainstream. However, it also needs to be said that it is entirely legitimate for journalism to draw upon secondary post-event accounts as source material, such as interviews, recollections, contemporary photos etc – but this is not the same as being eyewitness to something.
The question we are left with is what quality does NGO-led news agenda-setting bequeath the journalism on Darfur once they have caught up? Inevitably, subsequent (Western) journalism is qualified by its absence in the early period, as it was obliged to build on foundations provided by others that operate in a different way to it.
In contrast to Darfur, the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in the same year received global blanket coverage that pushed the boundaries of journalism and of credulity at times. This comparison merely makes the point that if there is an editorial appetite – such as the US-led coalition removing one of the West’s great bogeymen – the media consumer can be made to feel that there is nothing he or she does not know about a subject. This in Darfur came much later.
It is worth adding that news from Iraq (which was very well-attended by journalists) – in 2003 and ever since – is still contested in areas for its legitimacy of journalistic practices, such as embedding and venturing no further than the Green Zone for whatever reason.