Tragedy in Africa gets scant notice

Denver dailies, like others around U.S., find little room to cover continent's woes

June 18, 2005

by David Kopel

Speaking at Kent Denver School last Saturday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright bemoaned what she saw as lack of American support for sub-Saharan black Africa (The Denver Post,June 12). The same criticism might be leveled at the media, for its neglect of African events. A June 14 commentary headline in The Christian Science Monitorasked, "In Congo, 1,000 die per day: Why isn't it a media story"

The Monitornoted that absence of reader interest is the standard explanation. After all, newspapers have a finite amount of space for foreign news. If readers care more about elections or government intrigue in, say, the United Kingdom or Israel than they do about similar events in Africa, it is reasonable for newspapers to give readers what they want.

Yet when genocide is taking place, newspapers have a duty to force the issue into the consciousness of their readers. In the new book Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper,journalism professor Laurel Leff explains how The New York Timesfailed to alert Americans to the Holocaust during World War II.

As she summarized in an article for History News Network (, the Times"deliberately de-emphasized the Holocaust news, reporting it in isolated, inside stories . . . The Times'judgment that the murder of millions of Jews was a relatively unimportant story also reverberated among other journalists trying to assess the news . . ."

Leff explains that the Timeswas owned by a Jewish family that was concerned about appearing to engage in special pleading for Jews. Also, many American journalists were justifiably wary about falling for a new version of the fake atrocity stories about Germany that the British used to dupe the U.S. into entering World War I.

Even so, it is impossible to deny that one of the reasons the postwar promise of "Never again" has again and again proved impotent against genocide is the failure of the American press to push genocide stories to the front page.

Both Denver papers included brief items about the Ethiopian government killing about two dozen protesters in the capital city of Addis Ababa recently (June 9-10). But a Denver newspaper reader would know nothing about the government's genocide against the Anuak people of southwestern Ethiopia, which has been going on since late 2003.

In the Sudan, the ruling Arab tyranny has perpetrated genocide first against the black Christians and animists of the south, and now against the black Muslims in the west. Although Albright told The Washington Postin a May 29, 2000, article, "The human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people," the main reason that American media has at least risen to the level of mediocrity are the determined efforts of Christian and other human rights activists who put Sudan on the congressional agenda.

Meanwhile, the Web site StrategyPage reported on June 3 that "Zimbabwe is about ready to explode in a nightmare \[of] mass murder." StrategyPage explained that Zimbabwe is suffering a famine as a result of the Robert Mugabe dictatorship's destruction of the nation's agriculture. People in the cities have been surviving only by buying food on the black market, which the dictatorship has destroyed in the last month by bulldozing huge urban areas, sending refugees into the countryside. The StrategyPage report concluded: "The government seems determined to starve its enemies to death. . . . This story will only get reported after the dead are buried."

In the last month, the Posthas covered Zimbabwe with a Washington Postarticle on food aid (June 2), while the Rocky Mountain Newsoffered a five-paragraph editorial (June 3) and a two-paragraph news item (June 15). Better than nothing, but hardly adequate considering the magnitude of the crisis - especially since none of the articles get to the point about Mugabe using starvation as an tool of state policy.

And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Deliberate genocide is just one cause of the immense civilian death toll resulting from a multiparty civil war, reports Survivors' Rights International. The Posthas printed nothing on the subject in the last month. The Newshas run a few short items, plus an excellent Associated Press story (June 13).

It's difficult for journalists to report the atrocities taking place in these African hellholes, since the perpetrators have no more respect for freedom of the press or a journalist's right to life than they do for the lives of the victims.

Yet the intrepid New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof succeeds anyway. He recently reported from a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan. Before that, in March, he traveled secretly in Zimbabwe and found conditions there so awful that the people longed for the days of rule by the white racist Ian Smith government - which, at least, never tried to starve them to death.

Determined readers can find African genocide news if they look hard enough - at the sources compiled by the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania, or at the Web site of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. But news about genocide ought to be as easy to find - indeed, as inescapable - as news about Michael Jackson or the Denver Broncos.


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