Western media: Stop ignoring the Central African Republic crisis

When it comes to Africa, there is an empathy gap

With gunfire and mob attacks in the streets of the capital, the Central African Republic is teetering again on the edge of mass violence. Nine people killed were killed in two days, including a UN peacekeeper from Pakistan and a Muslim civilian whose dead body was decapitated and burned by an angry mob in the capital, Bangui. But world’s media are all but absent from the country.

More than 5,000 people have been killed there in less than a year. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, entire villages emptied, and most of the country’s Muslims forced to flee. Though there are 2,000 UN peacekeepers on the ground, CAR-watchers fear that the country could slide into full-scale sectarian war at any moment. And the stakes of another escalation are extraordinarily high. During the height of the violence in January, John Ging, the director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned, “The elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide.”

If the worst were to happen, the international media would have few eyes watching firsthand. A poor, landlocked former French colony with few paved roads, CAR is an expensive place to send journalists. Wire reports about the country sometimes have datelines in Paris or The Hague. And with other crises burning across the planet, news organizations are devoting finite resources elsewhere.

“It used to be easier, when budgets were larger, to convince editors to send reporters to so-called underreported or obscure conflicts. But that’s becoming difficult,” says Peter Bouckaert, the head of Human Rights Watch’s emergency team.

Coverage has dropped since last winter. A LexisNexis newspaper search surfaces 494 pieces even mentioning the phrase “Central African Republic” in September, down from a peak of 1,295 in February. That figure for September also marks a slight improvement from September of 2013, when the same set of newspapers mentioned CAR in just 414 pieces. Google searches for “Central African Republic” dropped in September to just 19 percent of their peak in December 2013. This is less media attention than numerous celebrity stories receive. To pick an African comparison, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius was mentioned in 1,343 articles in September, at the conclusion of the sensational trial over his fatal shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

This is not a new problem. Wars in central Africa are chronically underreported. Two wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo killed more than five million people since 1996, more than any war since World War Two. Yet, as Ajnan Sundaram, the former AP stringer in that country put it in a New York Times op-ed this year, “This great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories.”

Jason Straziuso, East Africa Bureau Chief for AP, said one reason such wars are overlooked by American media is a lack of obvious implications for readers in the US.

“On a story like Kenya’s Westgate Mall massacre, many Americans have visited or would visit Kenya, and they can imagine themselves at that mall,” he said. “On CAR, to me it seems that this jungle conflict full of base human depravity is just one world too far away.”

In other words, when it comes to Africa, there is an empathy gap. The reality for much of the anglophone media is that it is sufficiently newsworthy that hundreds or even thousands of people are dying, or could die—if they are dying in the West. “Our job,” says Straziuso, “is to try to make the reader care, to get the borders and distance to fall.

Bouckaert said he has encountered the same resistance to coverage. “When American journalists call me and ask me, ‘Tell me about the Central African Republic,’ or ‘Tell me about Nepal,’ or whatever, they often come back to, ‘is there an American character I can profile? Otherwise I’ll never be able to sell it to my editor.’”

But the resurgence in fatalities in recent months demonstrates the need for robust and ongoing reporting in the CAR. When correspondents and broadcast teams leave the country and the crisis is again relegated to short wire reports, the world’s picture loses focus. The subtleties of politics vanish, and those on the outside have an even weaker grasp on a complex and dynamic conflict. The human side of the story, reportage with power to move the reader, also disappears.

After decades of relative calm, CAR had descended into crisis in March 2013, when Michel Djotodia seized power by leading his Seleka militia, which includes members of the country’s Muslim minority and fighters from Chad and Sudan, into the capital. After months of Seleka brutality, another militia, anti-Balaka, led a revolt against Djotodia that led to his resignation in January 2014. The anti-Balaka march through the country was marked by horrific killings of Muslim civilians, including many who were hacked to death with machetes. By late 2013, the country was in the midst of a human rights emergency.

Peter Bouckaert and Human Rights Watch are part of the reason the CAR crisis has received what modest attention it has. Bouckaert has made six trips to the country recently to document abuses. In January 2014, Bouckaert personally witnessed 13 lynchings and attempted lynchings, he said, incidents in which people were hacked to death with machetes in the streets. He kept going back to the country, he added, to “raise the alarm” and get international media to pay attention to the story, even sending a world-class photographer, Marcus Bleasdale, to produce stills and video, which they then presented to other news organizations. Bouckaert also helped steer attention using the #CARcrisis hashtag on Twitter and filed his own dispatches for the media, including Foreign Policy and the Telegraph.

A number of news organizations responded to the early signs of crisis. The BBC World News America won an Emmy award last week for coverage of CAR. The writer James Verini produced a striking longform piece published in Slate in September. But with a small peacekeeping force on the ground and a nominal transition plan in place, violence in CAR slowed over the summer as crises in Iraq, Gaza, and Ukraine, drew the media’s attention. The Ebola epidemic, with its manifest global implications, soaked up what bandwidth remained for stories from Africa.

Benedict Moran, a freelance journalist in Bangui on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project, said he could understand why editors might be more interested in Ebola than in CAR at the moment. “It’s difficult to explain what’s happening in CAR. And to be honest, though it’s very volatile here, it seems the situation is more dynamic and dangerous in countries impacted by Ebola,” he said.

The lesson of CAR is clear: “Coverage of these crises plays role as a very important early warning system,” says Bouckaert. “It’s much more important that we learn about these crises before the bloodshed and carnage take place, and in an in-depth kind of way we get to understand the causes of the violence.”

Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo