A recent lull in attention paid to the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by Western media is partly the product of the ever increasing sensationalist attitudes that determine editorial decisions in newspapers and other outlets alike. For the last year or so, Congo has simply been a less attractive target for news stories in terms of spectacle and international outrage than some other parts of the planet. Mostly, however, Congo has set the bar so high in terms of violence and human destitution over the past two decades that the current situation seems relatively mild in comparison. Extreme poverty, lack of central authorities and corresponding lawlessness, and continued external exploitation of its vast natural resources are still present, but it appears moderate from the eyes of an international community accustomed to much worse coming from central Africa. This is yet another tragedy chalked up by DRC: the only way to be in the international limelight is to equal or surpass its past moments of crises.
A quick search on some typical websites representing journalism, information and analysis of conflicts such as the one in Congo is revealing. The New York Times has not updated its page dedicated to Congo since August 5th. The Economist’s last article on the country is from last April. Even worse, the International Crisis Group, surely one of the main sources of information and analysis on these kinds of situations, has not updated its DRC page since June. No wonder that less respected but more widely read sources such as Wikipedia (no serious additions or updates for over a year) have had decidedly anemic information flows on the topic. The only topic that has received some attention recently is the forthcoming Human Security Report 2009 (http://www.humansecurityreport.info/) which argues that the death toll estimates of the Congolese conflicts have been exaggerated and should be revised downwards; important and obviously positive news, but something that takes nothing away from the continued tragedy of human suffering in the country.
Of course there have been some hopeful signs in 2009 that should not be ignored. The apparently improved relations between Kinshasa and Kigali have at least temporarily led to the marginalization of rebel groups on both sides. This has allowed a relative tranquility- in comparison to the past- which has reduced violence, refugees and humanitarian crises in the east of the country. There are also sustained and moderately successful efforts to reform the military, even though the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) are still nowhere near any acceptable standard when it comes to discipline, funding and structure. As such, they- and MONUC for cooperating with them- are rightly criticized by human rights groups. At the same time, the question has to be asked what alternative there is to supporting and improving the FARDC and Joseph Kabila’s regime. Improved development cooperation and foreign direct investment- mostly from China- has brought some desperately needed foreign exchange to the country, even though these flows are still too much directed at budget support rather than micro-level funding. The IMF and World Bank announced on January 28th a debt relief program worth 1.9 billion dollars.
All of this notwithstanding, the DRC remains one of the most destitute countries when it comes to living conditions and human security. As such, it is a testament to the increasingly perverse standards of Western journalism that there has been so little attention paid to the issues facing this country.
One of the subjects that the international peacebuilding community continuously faces is the great difficulty in convincing donors and policy makers that the building of sustainably peaceful societies requires long-term commitment, and not just conflict or post-conflict intervention. Unfortunately, it seems that even post-conflict situations have lost their journalistic appeal in the 24 hour news cycle, and it would be naive to think that that won’t have consequences for political decision making. The fact that the DRC is not even in clearly defined post-conflict territory- the structural conflicts still exist, they are just less visible because of decreased organized violence- makes the decreasing attention paid to the country even less justifiable.
Even though it is true that, in comparison to the dramatic past, violence is down, economic growth is up, refugee and displaced-person numbers are down, and Kinshasa has some modicum of central authority over most Congolese regions, just consider the following:
– Ethnic violence in the former Equateur province has caused over a 100,000 internally displaced people in the past two months alone.
– Although typically difficult to measure and quantify, sexual violence is still rife in many parts of the country as a result of the absence of strong and good governance.
– Rebel groups still roam the Khivu’s, albeit in smaller numbers, and cause local violence on a regular basis. Those rebels that are in the process of being disarmed and reintegrated into the FADRC are nowhere near as detached from their former past as officials like to pretend.
– Extreme poverty remains one of the highest in the world, and the DRC ranks in the bottom ten of the Corruption Perception Index.
– Foreign actors, both state and non-governmental, continue their mostly unsupervised exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources.
– 18 battalions of the FARDC, with limited support from MONUC, are preparing an offensive against Rwandese rebels in the Khivu provinces.
– China announced it would dedicate more of its considerable economic and political clout to establishing peace in the Great Lakes region. If ever there was a sign that China has taken over the geopolitical baton from Western powers in the region, this is it.
So, to The NY Times, The Economist, the International Crisis Group, et al.: if you, in a world dominated by Haiti-type disasters, cannot spare greater resources to the lessened media pull in Congo, at least dedicate some of your unpaid but undoubtedly enthusiastic interns to update your pages and news gathering on the DRC. If you don’t, nobody will.