From Human Rights Reporting to the Dominant Media Narrative of Darfur
To a considerable extent, crises in far-off lands are defined by foreigners and not by those living through them, which then creates a perceived moral imperative to do something about it. Darfur became Darfur when the West got involved, and continues to dominate its parameters.
As noted in a previous post,the media were slow in picking up Darfur, and were led to the story by human rights organisations (HROs). Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Crisis Group provided much of the facts and background – and morality – that amounted to enough of a groundswell that the mainstream Western media felt emboldened enough to run another Africa story.
This post will take a closer look at the relationship between the work of the human rights organisations and the dominant media Darfur narrative that emerged in early 2004. Of course, 2003 had been a very serious year in terms of conflict and bloodshed, but it is often the case that the Western media are slow (or reluctant) on the uptake, defining the crisis themselves and arriving once a lot has already taken place. Essentially, the media selected their narrative from the more complete story supplied by the HROs, leaving important ideas out and rendering an incomplete and essentialised picture.
Regarding the story of Darfur, there is a clear relationship between the media and HROs. In fact, from January – May 2004, which was very much the early stages of media reporting of Darfur in Britain, the Guardian, Independent, Times and Daily Telegraph had all reported Darfur, and each quoted from Amnesty, HRW and the ICG. To better appreciate the import of this, a few characteristics of the HROs need pointing out.
The developed branch of ethics that governs journalism has limited equivalent in human rights reporting. Such reports are a form of lobbying, insofar as the points they wish to make are not tempered by an ethics-mandated need for balance, or a journalist’s requirement to ‘tell both sides of the story.’
The organisations themselves are perfectly candid about what they provide: “strategic, targeted advocacy” and “moral groundwork” (HRW), “campaigning” and [the means to] “exert influence” (Amnesty), and “policy prescription and high-level advocacy” (ICG). No media organisation would officially claim such things.
Thus in reading these reports, the reader is led to a viewpoint in the absence of both moral ambiguity and the shades of grey that often characterise conflict. In the case of Darfur particularly, it is clear (and unchallenged) who is to blame (the Sudanese government), so in this sense such reports contain a prosecutorial element.
As noted in a recent post on this blog, such reports use extensive victim testimony, packaged for publication by the author in the majority of cases, which combine with the reportage to give factual and moral certainty to events. The single explanation offered gives the impression of a ‘complete’ picture, but contains no space for the accused to present their side of things as victim-perpetrator narratives usually do.
One further point is coverage; news is where the journalists are, not the other way round – and the same can be said of the HROs. They can, and do, also leave stories untold.
When looking at the genesis of a narrative that had hitherto been below the media’s radar but squarely in the NGO field, there are two main points to be made.
Firstly, the media were both unwilling and unable to do much fact-checking. Access and inclination was a problem, and so accepting at face value factual information contained was necessary. Much of the early reporting was clearly sourced to various NGO reports.
It is worth adding, however, that these reports were not necessarily or intentionally misleading or factually incorrect, although sincerity and distortion are not mutually exclusive. The most likely scenario is that the media simply were not in a position to check the facts given in these reports. That would imply considerable time and resource expenditure, which was very unlikely to be given the OK when the media were not keen on Darfur in the first place.
Secondly, the dominant narrative adopted by the media was selected from a fuller account provided by the HROs, meaning that parts were left out.
For example, a report from Amnesty (27 November 2003) contains ideas such as Arab non-participation in the conflict, and another (17 February 2004), also from Amnesty, reports allegations of abuses – such as killing, looting and kidnapping – committed by the armed rebel groups. Such ideas were lost under the weight of the essentialised narrative that, from a distant Europe and US, simplified the conflict to Arab vs African.
Similarly, when mentioned, Chad was contextualized as somewhere that borders Darfur and a locus of refugee camps housing Darfuris. Little mention was made of the complex, politically significant ethnography of the two areas and fractious history of Chad-Sudanese relations. These are the ambiguities and shades of grey that are more consistent with conflict.
The elements selected tend to fit in with the Western media’s broader iconography of an African disaster: distant, bloody, man-made and interminable. One of The Times‘ earliest editorial headlines on Darfur (27 May 2004) was “Africa’s latest atrocity,” while the phrase “the horrors of Darfur” first appeared around mid-2004, and was still in use five years later.
Thus the media narrative has tended to render Darfur’s identity politics fixed as opposed to fluid, which is of course what they are. This then became fed back into the conflict, contributing to its perpetuation.
Human rights reports fulfil a valuable role, but should be seen as complementary, not an alternative or identical to a journalist’s research. Even then, important nuances that appeared in the early Darfur human rights reports were overlooked.
The selectivity and essentialised conception that characterises the passage of Darfur’s narrative from human rights reporting to the mainstream media need not be anything particular to Darfur, for the media generally operates in this way.
However, Darfur stands out because it was (eventually) embraced remarkably fully by a media that described predominantly in black and white a conflict that simply could not be described in those terms.
Excellent work. Thank you for this very thoughtful and well-crafted post.
I worry that the kind of “journalistic research” and “nuanced” reporting you mentioned will only get worse as the print newspaper industry continues to lose money in the United States. Luckily, this isn’t as much of a problem in the UK, but it seems as though underfunded American newspaper bureaus in places like Africa will only become more reliant on reports created by NGO’s? Perhaps this highlights why the UNAMID monthly reports are so valuable.
Although this post is entirely right in stressing the dangers of the media taking the NGO narratives at face value it does miss a bit of historical context. In early 2004 the Sudanese government was still severly obstructing Western (and Sudanese) media access (and Al-Jazeera’s Khartoum journalist was arrested in April 2004, likely for its ‘false’ reporting on Darfur). When people like Philip Cox went into Darfur in early 2004 and reported on the responsibility, strenuously denied thus far, of the Government of Sudan this logically was the main story. At that time in the conflict the government had the most ability to stop atrocities through training, paying and arming the Janjaweed. It is therefore not surprising that when NGO reports were combined with on the ground reporting in early 2004 that was the story. Guy Gabriel is entirely right about the danger of lack of on the ground balanced reporting and NGO mediated simplified mainstream media perceptions from the summer of 2004 onwards. This led to the Â´is it genocideÂ´ debates, helped by the emergence of the Save Darfur Coalition in the summer of 2004.
However before then NGOs like HRW-ICG-amnesty played a positive and necessary role in time when the story was simpler and on the ground reporting very difficult.
Thanks for your reply. The focus of my post is not to suggest that there are dangers in human rights reports – on the contrary, they are invaluable and provide a permanent record when often no one else is interested. My criticisms are aimed more at the media, which should take the reports as complementary to their research, and not as an alternative as is sometimes the case.
My point is that the media narrative for Darfur from early 2004 was selected from a fuller account that the human rights organisations had already provided. This process of selection in practice meant cutting parts out, which essentialised the story. For example, in November 2003, Amnesty interviewed and reported Arab tribe members who had taken refuge in Chad to escape the violence they wanted no part of, which is something that the media also could have done.
As for reporting Sudan itself, you are absolutely right to stress the difficulties of working there, which I mentioned briefly – â€œaccess and inclinationâ€ were a problem. As I mentioned in a previous blog, various news agencies had reported Darfur in 2003: among others, AFP, AP, Reuters, PANA, UPI and IRIN. A number of Arab and pan-Arab outlets had also reported Darfur. The bottom line was that there was enough information out there for people to have been better informed from an earlier stage.
Incidentally, Amnesty got on the case of press freedom in Darfur early: in July 2003, they took up 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 because he reported the attack on al Fasher airport. As I say, such organisations provide a valuable service when few else are interested.