The Arab and Western Media Responses to Darfur
It is frequently heard that Arabs/Muslims and their media were silent, unmoved or without opinion over Darfur. These suppositions tend to contain a measure of moral equivalence and finger-pointing, suggesting that responding as a Westerner — regardless of the quality, timing or efficacy of response — is the most correct option. In most conceptions, there is only limited possibility of dialogue imagined for the Western and Arab media narratives on Darfur.
Rather than tackling this issue of moral equivalence, this post will examine whether “˜silence’, “˜unmoved’ or “˜without opinion’ are fair descriptions of the Arab media response to Darfur, while maintaining that exoneration or incrimination of the Arab media performance over Darfur are not envisaged aims. The piece will also suggest that in addition, a fair appraisal of the quality and efficacy of the Western response is needed.
In a previous post, I wrote about how the Western media were late in cottoning on to the conflict in Darfur, and that NGOs and activists had to overcome a good degree of editorial resistance before the mainstream media would run another African conflict story. I will contain this analysis to the year or so before the Western media responded to a conflict that started in February 2003.
Dribs and drabs on Darfur started to be published from around February 2004 in the Western media, with the floodgates opening from April 2004. The Save Darfur movement was established in July 2004.
Incidentally, this rush of stories from April onward coincided with a UN announcement that Darfur constituted the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” However, around four months earlier, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland described it as “one of the worst in the world” (5 December 2003).
You could conclude that unless you are certified the worst crisis in the world – not just one of them – you do not merit mainstream media attention.
Conversely, the pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera reported the attack on Golo (26 February 2003) immediately, causing the then-Governor of North Darfur Lt-Gen Ibrahim Sulayman to refute on Sudanese TV the next day Al-Jazeera’s claims that a rebel movement had occupied Golo.
When Sudan’s then-Minister of Information and Communication Al-Zahawi Ibrahim Malik complained in March 2003 that the media “had magnified events and portrayed untrue facts” (13 March 2003, Al-Khartoum), he was not talking about the Western media, which had not portrayed anything.
This is merely to pass on fact about the media environment at the time, not to make any judgements about the quality or accuracy of Arab coverage of Darfur. However, if you followed it, you would know a lot more about Darfur than if you had relied on Western media. For example, in the Sudanese media during the period the Western media were still silent and unmoved, many things relating to the Darfur conflict were reported, such as:
– the abduction of five aid workers with Swiss NGO Medair
– various attacks on convoys
– prisoner exchanges
– the release of several score children who had been abducted
– peaceful coexistence agreements signed between Fur and Arab tribes in Jebel Marra
– calls to disarm the janjaweed
– the return of some refugees from camps in Chad to their villages
– accusations of Russian pilots aiding rebel troops
– the shooting down of a British-owned plane said to be supplying rebels troops
– the murderous settling of a score within rebel ranks
– the unconditional release of Maj-Gen Tayyar Ibrahim al-Bushra after having been captured during the attack on Al-Fasher airport
– accusations of the government using chemical weapons
– a staged walk out of the National Assembly by members from Darfur in October 2003, protesting the minimised importance of the region
– a number of students at Al-Khartoum university who were injured in February 2004 during a protest over Darfur
Likewise, in terms of diplomacy, much had taken place before the Western media and activists caught up, such as the Abeche framework, and the Jeddah Agreement which had some bearing on Darfur. The President of Sudan even declared the end of major military operations; high-level meetings had taken place in Asmara with members of the Darfur diaspora.
Darfur was not solely a domestic issue at this stage. There were visits to Darfur from numerous Western diplomats, including the British, US and German ambassadors, and the French and US chargé d’affaires; the head of USAID also visited; talks were held in Khartoum with visiting foreign dignitaries, including Hilary Benn, Britain’s then-international development secretary; and press conferences were given by Tom Vraalsen, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian affairs for the Sudan. Various pledges for aid were made by several Western nations.
To reiterate: while not substantiating any of this or vouching for the quality and balance of Sudanese reporting, it is merely an observation that these elements are the dynamics of conflict. There are ebbs and flows, government and rebel attacks, attempted diplomacy, failed peace agreements, confusion and uncertainty. There were also plenty of accusations of foreign interference and responsibility.
The experience of Darfur was never as simple as often made out in some Western circles, and readers of Arabic knew this long before the West did.
It is worth adding that access — heavily influenced by government obstruction — to Darfur for foreign diplomats and humanitarian actors was of utmost concern during this period, and the Sudanese media crossed enough red lines in its coverage that many newspapers were suspended. These included the Khartoum Monitor (suspended for the seventh time) Alwan, Al-Azminah, Al-Ayyam, Al-Captain, Al-Sahafa, Al-Watan and Raai al-Shaab, as well as the Khartoum bureau of Al-Jazeera.
On 13 November 2003, Sudanese newspaper Akhir Lahza denounced in a statement “violations of human rights and the organized looting of property by armed groups, accusing elements from the government, without specifying their names, of supporting these actions and preventing diplomats from following events in Darfur.”
Spokesmen from rebel groups were heard from. For example, Ibrahim Amru of the Sudanese Liberation Movement denounced forced displacement and scorched earth tactics in a detailed account of attacks in north Darfur on Sudanese opposition National Democratic Alliance radio on 26 July 2003:
“The affected villages are Abu-Qidad, Tabandiyat I, II and III, Helekshoga Bujdad, Rajab Isa, Musa Khalil, Thafakia Abd-al-Rahim, Ahmad Nimrawi, Abu-Arna, Boswa-al-Khor, Sulayman Harun, Abd-al-Aziz Gei, Ismail, Hafir Kilyemum I, II, III, IV and V, Umda Adam, Ubestura, Al-Juzuri, Wadud, Shileha and Abu-Adhwam.”
One would be hard pressed to find such a level of detail in the West.
In terms of broader regional Arab media coverage, Darfur was on the radar. All media outlets concentrate primarily on their own countries, but Darfur was most certainly on the radar of other Arab countries. For example, from the early stages of the conflict in 2003, 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 covered Darfur.
It would be unfair to say that “˜closing ranks’ in support of “˜Arabs’ characterised this coverage. For example, in an interview with Al-Hayat on 24 December 2003, Abdel Wahid Al-Nur accused Iran, Syria and Egypt of setting up airlifts aimed at supplying the Sudanese government with weaponry and logistics, while alleging the presence of Arabs from central Africa, Mauritania and Chad alongside the government militia. These claims were also heard on Sudanese radio.
London-based Iraqi newspaper Al-Zaman carried an interview on 22 August 2003 with Umma Party leader Sadiq Al-Mahdi, in which he said:
“I believe that the government is responsible for the escalation of the war in Sudan. It has created the circumstances for that and they are what have led to the new activity in Darfur. We are hopeful that the current negotiating will lead to a new situation. In general, the Sudanese people want to end the war and the dictatorship and I believe that this has now become possible.”
In Asharq Al-Awsat on 15 August 2003, Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement leader John Garang said in an interview:
“Darfur is another problem that the government is taking advantage of in an attempt to agitate the people and win their sympathy… I believe that it is impossible to solve this problem without a political solution. This is particularly true since the start of the problem in the south the government has been dealing with this war as a security war. It initiated military action, which led to the spread and the continuation of this war for all these years. So, the government must admit that the Darfur problem is a political problem and it must be solved politically, not militarily.”
Thus, critical and opposition voices were heard in the Arab media before there were any in the mainstream Western media. However, caveats are required, because this statement does not give a sense of the quality or balance of coverage or opinion.
Assessment of Arab coverage of Darfur is much better done by themselves. On 9 April 2007, a workshop organised by the International Crisis Group and the American University in Cairo was held in Egypt’s capital, aimed at discussing coverage of Darfur in Arab media. It was attended by members of the pan-Arab media and journalists from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon and Egypt. The ICG link to a number of relevant sources here.
The workshop concluded that “while political aspects of the Darfur crisis were given significant attention in the Arab media, there was much less reporting on humanitarian aspects of the crisis. Reasons for this included: the difficulties involved in getting to the story, a lack of funding, self-censorship in government-owned Arab media, lack of interest in the subject and racism.”
This is a disarmingly honest and interesting point of view, because the experience of the Western media displays contrasting characteristics: significant attention on the humanitarian aspect, and much less on the political.
Lawrence Pintak of Arab Media & Society gives a good account of the workshop here, where he heard Arab journalists express “unprecedented self-criticism” on the coverage of Darfur. Nabil Kassem of Al-Arabiya is particularly critical of Arab coverage, having produced a documentary called “˜Jihad on Horseback,’ which was then pulled under Saudi pressure. It can be seen here. Additionally, this Reporters Without Borders report (April 2007) on its fact-finding mission to Sudan is very instructive on press freedom in Sudan.
When it comes to public opinion among Arab / Muslims states, one of the few studies to approach the subject methodologically is the survey commissioned by the Arab American Institute and conducted by Zogby International, available here, in which policy options seen to “end the violence, respond to humanitarian needs, and bring the two sides together — specifically, peace negotiations with government and rebel groups and a fund for humanitarian relief – received overwhelming support.”
All in all, this does not amount to silence, being unmoved or without opinion. It is my experience that Arabs are never silent on anything for very long, and that Westerners without the ability to understand spoken and written Arabic find it difficult to assess and evaluate what they have to say.
Furthermore, in the West we must give an honest appraisal of our own responses. Why were the media so late in cottoning on? Can the ethnocentric approach (Arabs v Africans) help much? Does the near-exclusive use of the humanitarian lens obscure and ignore political reality, and objectify people in need by generalising and essentialising from afar?
When Darfur the story broke, one article in Britain described Darfuris “drawing their simple, peaceful existence from the rich, red, African earth,” in an “inhospitable land in a continent bloodied by its own cruelty.” The article was entitled “˜Heart of Darkness’ (what else?), and even cautioned readers that some of the refugees may be heading for Britain.
Overall in the mainstream British print media, George Clooney is mentioned in connection with Darfur more times than the Justice and Equality Movement, Khalil Ibrahim, the Sudan Liberation Army, Abdel Wahid Al-Nur and the Darfur Peace Agreement combined. How much really can be learnt?
These examples are not meant to be representative, and a lot of good Western journalism did come out of Darfur, but they are testament to the need to examine how the crisis was responded to in the media.
Arab journalists from across the region attended a workshop aimed at honest appraisal of their efforts in covering Darfur, and expressed “unprecedented self-criticism.” Of course future conduct is a critical measure (as it is for Western journalists), although it must be mentioned that the environment they work in is far more restricted than that of journalists in the West.
Is such an event forthcoming in the West, or will its journalists respond in the same ways next time an Africa story comes up? Given the compassion fatigue that now characterises Darfur’s profile in the Western media, “˜silent’, “˜unmoved’ or “˜without opinion’ is plausibly an apt description for the West.