On Monday April 7th, one of the Africa-focused mailing lists I subscribe to noted that there was a possible massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Drodro area of the Ituri region, a region known for deadly ethnic conflict. I immediately headed for the online edition of the New York Times... and found nothing. Three clicks in, I found an AP wire story. I went to news.google.com to see if other news sources were reporting the story. News.google listed roughly 1200 articles, most on the ongoing peace process attempting to end the deadly conflict taking place in the northeastern part of the country.
Early reports suggested that 966 people had been killed in the massacre, most with machetes. In my search results, putting these killings in context was a report from the International Rescue Committee, a widely respected NGO, arguing that the conflict in Congo has been the most deadly since World War II, causing 3.3 million deaths. So why wasn't this tragedy on the front page of the New York Times?
Out of morbid curiosity, I searched news.google for Iraq. Almost 550,000 results. Roughly 450 times as many stories. I went back to the times and discovered there were over 50 results on Iraq to the single story on the Congo. I went out to buy the paper to see how the story was presented. The front page included five articles on Iraq, one on SARS, and less than a column inch leading into a local story. Those five cover stories complemented the full "Nation at War" separate section of the paper. The piece on the Congo massacre ran on A6 in a single column.
Two things to make clear. One, I don't mean to pick on the New York Times. I consider them to be one of the most responsible and reputable papers in the US. I turned to them first because I expected them to have coverage on a key issue... not something I expect from every major US daily. Second, I do not mean to minimize the importance of the war in Iraq, the sacrifices made by American and British troops or the tragic deaths of Iraqi civilians. That said, I found myself asking the morbid question: "How many Congolese would need to be slaughtered to make the front page of the New York Times?".
So I started on the GAP project. It's been in the back of my head for some time, as I've wondered about the media's lack of attention to the massacres in Rwanda in 1994. If we paid as close attention to Rwanda as we do to Israel - or even to Iceland - could the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi have been prevented? I'd really like to believe that we've reached a point in human history when genocide is only possible when the world isn't watching.
At Geekcorps, I work with IT businesses in developing nations. I tend to be perpetually pissed off that friends and family don't understand that people in Ghana run web design shops, and that there are excellent Mongolian C++ programmers. Increasingly, I'm understanding that I should be pissed at the media, not at my friends. It's rare to find any coverage on Africa in mainstream American media, never mind coverage of business in Africa. How would the world economy be different if African businesses got proportional coverage to European and North American businesses? I'm not convinced that every nation in the world needs to be proportionally represented in the global media. A friend argues that there's just not much to write about farmers in rural China - I buy that argument, up to a point. On the other hand, I find myself wondering whether journalists find news wherever they bother to look. Are there really 302 Iraq-connected stories to be told by the New York Times today? Or are there a lot of reporters embedded in Iraq who need to produce some stories?
I find it pretty reassuring that some folks in the global media have paid attention to the underplay of the Congo story. Giles Elgood wrote a thoughtful piece for Reuters, and South Africa's _Business Report_ has a great opinion piece by Alide Dasnois.
It's still unclear how many people died in the Ituri area on April 4th. Estimates range from 150 to over 1,000. Statements from the African Union and the EU condemn "hundreds" of civilian deaths, since no one has a firm number.
Perhaps if we had a few dozen reporters "embedded" in the Eastern Congo, we'd have a better sense.
Perhaps if GAP really catches on, we will.