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Media, reality, representation: what are we paying attention to when we pay attention to Darfur?

One of the better conversations I’ve had lately was with an old friend who’s now working in Sudan, reporting on local news and politics as well as on the ongoing conflict in Darfur. (Said old friend has asked to remain nameless in this post, as friend is concerned that opinions expressed in this conversation might make it difficult to continue working as a journalist in Sudan.) I asked him a question I’ve been contemplating lately: Why has the conflict in Darfur been able to gain so much media and activist attention?

Because you may or may not be an Africa-based journalist, let me unpack the question for a moment. There are a number of international conflicts that have claimed more lives and displaced more people than the conflict in Darfur. The Second Congo War and its ongoing aftermath is believed to have killed more than 5.4 million people, mostly due to “excess mortality” connected to disease and starvation. Other conflicts compare to Darfur in terms of brutality and displacement, but have received far less attention. War between Ugandan forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda has displaced more than a million people from their homes, and one in three boys in the region have been abducted, for periods of time or permanently, by LRA forces. The war between Ethiopia and Islamist forces in Somalia – supported by the US military – has created 1 million internally displaced persons and 450,000 international refugees.

It’s admirable that activists have been able to draw so much attention to Darfur. I’m interested in the phenomenon not to criticize focus on Darfur over other conflicts, but because I’d like to help people working on other conflicts gather attention and resources. I see Darfur as a rare example of an international crisis that’s gotten huge attention in the US despite the fact that most Americans have no direct, personal connection to the region. (I’m not the only one trying to do this – John Prendergrast, who’s focused on Darfur for the International Crisis Group, is one of several Africanists who’s started a new organization, Enough, designed to harness some of the attention around Darfur and call attention to situations in DRC, Uganda, Somalia and elsewhere.)

Agreeing with the analysis that attention paid to Darfur is unprecedented, my friend offers a two-part analysis, which I’ve modified to a three part analysis:

– The time was right. Guilt over the failure to intervene in Rwanda, especially on the part of North American and European nations, offered an opportunity to demand intervention in another African conflict.

– In the US, there was already close attention paid to Sudan by human rights and by evangelical Christian communities, based on a perception of the Sudanese civil war as a religious conflict between the Muslim north and Christian (and animist) south. (My contribution to the analysis, based on my experience talking to evangelical friends about their anti-Khartoum activism as early as 2000.)

– The conflict in Darfur has been reducible to a fairly simple media narrative, with good guys and bad guys… even thought this narrative doesn’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground.

It’s this last point my friend and I focused most of our discussion on. The process of covering the conflict in Darfur has convinced my friend that a narrative centered on a merciless proxy army raping, chasing and killing innovent civilians in an attempt to ethnically cleanse a region isn’t wholly accurate. “This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. This is bad guys versus bad guys.”

An illustration of this argument was the May 10, 2008 attack by the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement on Omdurman, one of the cities that make up Khartoum. While the target was a military headquarters, roughly 30 civilians were killed in the clashes. My friend, who reported from the scene, reports that JEM was using mortars to attack goverment positions, well aware that those positions were surrounded by residential areas and would necessarily involve civilian casualties.

What frustrated my friend more was the response from Darfur activist groups to the JEM attack. It wouldn’t have been hard to condemn the violence and mourn the death of civilians before pointing to the larger context for the violence. That’s not what Save Darfur, the US non-profit coordinating “180 faith-based, advocacy and humanitarian organizations”, did. Their May 12th press release focused almost solely on the danger of retaliation against Darfuri communities in Khartoum and elsewhere:

Reacting to rebel attacks in and around Khartoum over the weekend and the Sudanese government’s heavy-handed response, Save Darfur Coalition president Jerry Fowler today released the following statement.

“The rebel attacks have endangered the lives of civilians in Khartoum and in Darfur and have raised fears of widespread retaliatory atrocities. The Sudanese government has often responded to rebel violence with brutal attacks against civilians. That these latest attacks took place inside the Sudanese capital enhances these fears. All parties must understand that there can be no violent solution to this conflict.

“Darfuris in Khartoum report that the Sudanese government is already conducting arbitrary detentions, torture and killings in and around Khartoum. Reports from Darfur indicate that the janjaweed militias are mobilizing and have begun to attack the town of Tawila in North Darfur.

“The Security Council and the entire international community must demand the protection of civilians in Darfur, Khartoum, and Chad. Individual governments – including the United States, United Kingdom, and China – must make clear that there will be significant consequences for any attacks on civilians, including U.N. Security Council sanctions upon individuals responsible for those attacks.

“Ending the violence requires the full deployment of the UNAMID, EUFOR and MINURCAT civilian protection forces and the initiation of a robust peace process with a clear end state for Sudan. The international community should therefore hold a special donors conference to announce the commitment of all necessary resources and equipment for UNAMID, and should renew diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Darfur and craft a peace for all Sudan.”

It seems odd to argue that there can be no violent solution to the conflict without condemning an attack by JEM, as the UN, EU and US did. Groups like Save Darfur run the risk of being viewed as propogandists for a violent group if they don’t find ways to condemn violence as well as urging peace.

My friend’s concern isn’t that Save Darfur is serving – knowingly or unknowingly – as a PR arm for JEM. It’s a concern that groups advocating on behalf of Darfur aren’t dealing with the real Darfur so much as a simulated Darfur, “Second Life Darfur”, as my friend put it, referencing a rant I posted two years ago about a simulated refugee camp built in Second Life designed to call attention to the conflict in Darfur. The situation in Darfur is incredibly complex, with several Darfuri groups with different aims and tactics, and complicated relationships between the Janjawid militias and the Sudanese Army.

My friend points to conflict over estimates of death in Darfur as an example of both how hard it is to report news from Sudan and how easy it is to slip into simulated realities. There’s no good consensus over how many people have been killed in violence in Darfur. Sam Dealy, writing in the New York Times, points to a study, viewed with high confidence by many researchers, by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters which projected 131,000 excess deaths between September 2003 and June 2005, with a likely sharp drop in mortality after June 2005 because many Darfuris are now in refugee camps. Respected Sudan researcher Alex De Waal offers a “best guess” of 200,000 dead, including 50,000 from direct violent conflict, the rest dying from disease or malnutrition connected to forced removal from their land.

The uncertainty over figures hasn’t stopped Save Darfur from using a specific, very high number. Ads in the UK included the claim, “After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.” Not only is that figure much higher than most estimates, it’s clearly incorrect that everyone killed is “innocent” – all estimates include combatants, and it’s hard to call guys who invaded a base of AU peacekeepers, killing ten, “innocent”. The European Sudanese Public Affairs Council, an explicitly pro-Khartoum group, complained about the ad to the British Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled in their favor, telling Save Darfur that the 400,000 figure was a disputed opinion, not a fact.

It’s possible to read Save Darfur’s exaggerations cynically, as Brendan O’Neill does in a fierce piece for his online journal, spiked. We should expect the campaign for Darfur to play fast and loose with the facts, “since ‘Save Darfur’ activism – from Hollywood celebs calling for Western military action to the growth of campaigning commentary on the conflict – has not really been about Darfur. Rather, it has been about creating a new moralistic and simplistic generational mission for campaigners and journalists in America and Europe.”

O’Neill references a challenging and compelling piece by Professor Mahmood Mamdani in the London Review of Books. Mamdani wonders why the same western campaigners anxious to get the US out of Iraq – a complex conflict involving national armies and paramilitaries – is so anxious to push military intervention in Darfur, which has similar dynamics. The reason he offers is that “There is nothing messy about Darfur [in the minds of American activists]. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’.” This radical oversimplification of the conflict is something he puts squarely on the shoulders of activists, focusing in particular on Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

The journalist in the US most closely identified with consciousness-raising on Darfur is the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, often identified as a lone crusader on the issue. To peruse Kristof’s Darfur columns over the past three years is to see the reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart. It is a world where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside, preferably in the form of a military intervention.

His critique of Kristof expands to an indictment of journalism as a whole: “Journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators face a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because both are outside history and context.” Obviously, not all journalism reduces situations to good versus evil, ignoring history, context and nuance… and it’s probably too much to suggest that all Kristof’s work has ignored context and nuance, though he’s clearly taken the stance of an advocate, rather than a journalist on this issue.

My question is this:

If Darfur is one of the best examples of people in the developed world paying attention to events in a developing nation, and if drawing attention to Darfur has involved an oversimplification of the conflict which may be damaging and misleading, should be be looking at the Darfur movement as an exemplar for how to draw attention to developing world issues, or should we be avoiding it like the plague?

In other words, is it possible to get people interested in African stories without oversimplifying them? Is it possible to solve “the caring problem” too well, convincing people to care too much and in the wrong directions? For those of us trying to get more attention to the rest of the world, how do we strike this balance between too much and too little?

15 thoughts on “Media, reality, representation: what are we paying attention to when we pay attention to Darfur?”

  1. Hi Ethan, I think you raise an interesting questions. In terms of Save Darfur effectiveness, I am not sure if it could quantified but several experts have reservation about the organization. In Sudan, there were three areas of major conflict: Southern Sudan, Darfur, and Eastern Sudan. The whole world became aware of Darfur where no political resolution has been found. The conflict that doesn’t get an media attention is Eastern Sudan where the government has signed a peace agreement- http://pom.peacebuild.ca/SudanLocal.shtml

    I respect their good attentions but are actors and hollywood types the best qualified people to speak on issues like Darfur? Are they going to be sufficient spokesperson- even some journalists. I would nominate Prof. Mamdadi to be the spokesperson.
    Check out Prof. Mamdadi interview on Democracy Now which is very informative and in way points out how US government participation and call for sanction was detrimental to peace

    Another thing Mamdani points out is politicization of genocide or crisis- if the US has direct or indirect participation- conflicts don’t get much attention i.e. Somalia or Congo this is something Mamdani points way which looking at media seems very true.

    But you know it is hard to find a simple solutions to complex problems. For those of us in the hi-tech field, I think we should try to utilize our technical skills to assist in specific area and not try to “end poverty” or “end war” ,etc.

  2. The strategic interests of those who put up the funds for U.S. election campaigns aren’t undermined by U.S. citizens’ worrying about Sudan. The more George Clooney talks about Darfur, the less he can complain about our adventures in the Middle East. That China depends on Sudanese oil doesn’t hurt either.

  3. The calls for western intervention in the Darfur saga has since the first instance been based on the wrong premise that it is a religious/genocidal matter, though there is some evidence attesting to this it is not the sole basis of the war.
    In my view there is a proxy war being fought between Sudan and Chad and its spillover enables the distruption of lifesystems in Darfur.
    Solely basing policy on the views of by evangelical groups who shut a blind eye to JEM’s atrocities will infact obscure the truth from the matter.

  4. Great question… But I’m not sure the hypothesis is entirely correct – “attention paid to Darfur is unprecedented” – but was it? Is it? The word Darfur is far more etched into western consciousness than say North Kivu or Mogadishu.

    However, if we feed a few keywords through Silobreaker which claims to draw upon “approximately 10,000 news, blog, research and multimedia sources” for its data compared to the 4,500+ source Google News uses, the picture is not so startlingly different between Sudan, DRC, Uganda and Somalia when compared over one year.

    Sudan does have the most coverage according to this comparison but not by any massive margin,


    However, if you compare specific cities/locations within those countries Darfur appears to come out on top for the most part


    Of course, if you compare media attention of Somalia, Sudan, DRC and Uganda with Iraq there is a clear difference,


    And on a city level too, comparing these same African Cities/regions with Baghdad for example,


    Sudan/Darfur is clearly the bigger African story, but it’s still small beer. And Zimbabwe overtook the agenda in recent months


    Therefore, in answer to your question perhaps Darfur has not received as much attention as one might assume. And certainly not in the depth of detail you suggest is needed. I for one know a number of hacks who have reported from Darfur and do an excellent job of explaining the complicated situation. However, I still don’t feel I’m fully in the picture. A picture which could of course be blurred by the abundance of oversimplifications you refer to.

  5. I think there is another level to your question: does the simplification of African issues result in difficulties solving the problems?

    In Darfur, the AU and UN forces have been woefully mismanaged and under prepared in both mandate and action. Is their inability to deal with the situation an outcome of media simplification? I don’t know.

    I would hope that military commanders and UN diplomats authorizing action would have a more nuanced understanding than the American public, but after reading about the UN’s response to the Yugoslav wars in “Complicity with Evil,” I think that may be wishful thinking.

    I guess what I’m getting at is this: it may be okay/acceptable/worthwhile to tell a “white lie” to the American public. Get them outraged about something by telling a simple moral story. Then, with the political mandate coming from the public, decision-makers with (hopefully) the time/ability/desire to understand the situation can act appropriately.

  6. Truth and consequences, on Darfur

    Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices raises some disturbing questions on media coverage of Darfur — on why this conflict has received more coverage than others with comparable or greater costs in deaths and displacement, and on whether the success of groups like Safe Darfur in rallying public interest in Darfur has also contributed to an over-simplified view of a complex conflict.

    The Pulitzer Center has attempted through its projects to shed light on all aspects of the conflict in Sudan, from our 2006 project on the African Union’s role in Darfur (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/showproject.cfm?id=18) to subsequent work on the government’s conflict with the Beja people of eastern Sudan (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/showproject.cfm?id=23) and the return of several Lost Boys to southern Sudan (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/showproject.cfm?id=33). Heba Aly is currently in nothern Sudan on another Pulitzer Center project, reporting on why many Sudanese Arabs feel alienated from their government as well.

    Ethan raises issues we all need to address. So does the essay he references by Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University from early 2007, in the London Review of Books.

    Jon Sawyer, Executive Director
    Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

  7. Hi Ethan, excellent, excellent post and spot on. I’ve raised most of those points and I’ve been talking about them for over two years now at my blog.

    The answer to your question is simple in my opinion. Here it is:


    P.S.: Most Sudanese would tell you America focuses on Darfur because it wants to steal the oil and uranium there (which I don’t believe to be true).

    I emailed you btw.

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  10. Quoting Ethan: “This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. This is bad guys versus bad guys.”

    This is an excellent post. Make it into an op-ed and try to get it publish it in one of the mainstream US papers!

    A good piece on the US politics of Darfur is by Hisham Aidi, see here: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer234/aidi.html

    Nice post.

  11. Hey Ethan,

    I’ve been asking this question for atleast to years. We have alot of study-abroad students from the US here and I see a few of them wearing “Save Darfur” t-shirts, when I ask them about it, they are either absolutely clueless or severely misinformed. Yes, people should be concerned about it, but they should know enough about the situation before wearing t-shirts with save darfur slogans, protesting infront of the sudanese emabassy in DC and sending e-mails to their senators calling for divestment.
    and yes why do they really think joining a facebook group, donating a dollar or even demonstrating is going to stop the conflict? if they know anything about it, they should advocated for a political resolution!

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