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Under the radar

under the radar

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Over the years, I have been struck by how limited is the attention span of most media organizations. This is a thoroughly understandable phenomenon, given that new stories keep on appearing to displace older ones. There are only so many reporters and camera crews available to cover events, and it is quite logical that they should be used to cover emerging news as opposed to old news. But in the process, a lot of still relevant stories are allowed to fall below the radar screens of active journalism. A few examples will serve to illustrate the point.

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In the early 1990s, the world was awash with stories about events in Somalia. The country had fallen into widespread civil war following the ouster of the long-serving dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The United Nations dispatched peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions to the country. The misadventures of those missions caused consternation in many countries. The crash of an American helicopter, killing most of the soldiers on board, led to an uproar in the United States and to the production of a Hollywood movie. The abuse of a Somali teenager by Canadian soldiers led to the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment and to a thoroughly demoralizing commission of inquiry. The UN eventually withdrew its forces from Somalia and left the responsibility for peacekeeping to a force of the African Union. But 30 years on, the civil war continues with the terrorists of the al-Shabab movement responsible for most of the violence. And it is only when al-Shabab mounts a particularly murderous bomb attack in the capital Mogadishu that there is the slightest bit of media attention to Somalia. No attention whatsoever is paid to the fate of Somalia’s citizens and refugees.

Of more recent vintage is the civil war in Syria. From 2011 to 2013, it was in the headlines almost daily. And deservedly so. It was to produce the deaths of 400,000 people, the displacement of millions internally and a population of several million refugees living in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The country’s major cities have been devastated and its health and education infrastructures demolished. In co-operation with Russia, the Assad regime has mercilessly bombed its civilian population and subjected it to attacks using chemical weapons. Now in its 10th year, the civil war continues with the regime having reasserted control over much but not all of the country. Calls for ceasefires and peace are today rather muted. So, too, are moves to hold the Assad regime accountable for its crimes. And Syria is no longer a story in the news.

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The same holds true of civil wars in two other Arab countries: Yemen and Libya. In Yemen, the local conflicts are compounded by a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition to thousands of deaths from fighting and disease, much of Yemen’s population is confronted with severe shortages of food and medicines. The World Food Program has warned that there may soon be widespread starvation in Yemen. And yet the world has not yet seen fit to sanction Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies for their roles in precipitating this humanitarian disaster. In Libya, the various civil wars precipitated by the demise of the dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 continue to this day. The economic and social pain inflicted on the Libyan people shows no sign of being brought to an end. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the central conflicts between governments of eastern and western Libya have gone nowhere. And yet events in Yemen and Libya make barely a ripple in the news cycle.

Three years ago, the world was transfixed on the fate of the Rohingya people of Myanmar. In response to a couple of attacks on police stations, the military authorities of Myanmar launched a vicious campaign of murder, arson and rape against the Rohingya. Whole villages were burned to the ground, and thousands were killed or raped. Some 700,000 decided to flee for their lives and seek sanctuary in neighbouring Bangladesh. There they now live in miserable refugee camps in one of the poorest countries in Asia which is unable to provide them with much help or support. But they, too, have totally disappeared from the headlines, making only a brief reappearance in short stories when the recent monsoon floods devastated some of their makeshift encampments. And rather than being held to account for their crimes, the generals in charge of the Myanmar security forces mounted a military coup against the civilian government and are now in command of the country.

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Also now largely forgotten are the people of Venezuela. Through a combination of flawed policies and mismanagement, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has reduced an inherently wealthy country to an economic basket case. Everything is in short supply, including food and medicine. The people mounted a long series of protests, which were widely covered by the international media. The Maduro regime reacted, however, with brutal repression of the demonstrations, and millions of Venezuelans fled the country. Maduro and his military supporters remain in charge, and Venezuela has disappeared from the headlines.

Much the same holds true for major natural disasters. Volcanic eruptions in the Philippines, monsoon rains in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, typhoons and floods in China and Vietnam, and major floods in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands all get 72 hours of coverage and then largely disappear from sight. But the thousands of homes destroyed and the millions of people displaced by those events are of little enduring concern to the media. In recent weeks, the Canadian media have been almost totally preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the plights of Indigenous Peoples and the heat waves and wild fires in the West. These are thoroughly understandable concerns, but should they be to the exclusion of all else that is going on in the world? There are bigger stories out there.

When I was in government, we used what was called a B/F system. It stood for Bring Forward. When something was sent to file, it was often accompanied by a B/F tag which meant that it should be brought up again at some future date. Perhaps the media should adopt a similar system. When completing their last story on some major event, they could put in place an undertaking to revisit it in three or six months’ time to see how events were unfolding and to report on them. This would lead to more balanced coverage of world events.

Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.

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