Tuesday 8 June 2004

Darfur Starvation Will Be Televised... Eventually

This article was published in the Christian Science Monitor on 8 June 2004.


When people are starving en masse, television is there to capture their fly-covered faces as they expire. The world is appalled by the repeated images of the dying and is stirred to action: People open up their purses to charity appeals, and politicians feel strong public pressure to address the famine and its root causes at the highest level.

But mass starvation doesn't just appear out of nowhere in an instant, so where are the TV cameras just before the emaciated bodies start piling up?

Right now, they are in Iraq. Or Israel/Palestine. Or India. Or just about anywhere else in the world apart from the Darfur region of Sudan, where the next mass starvation is now imminent.

Darfur is a purely manmade disaster. Since early last year, the government of Khartoum has been supporting Arab "Janjaweed" militias in a devastating scorched-earth campaign across the region, ethnically cleansing the area (about the size of Texas) of its black African population, who it claims is supporting a rebellion there. Through their mass slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians and the burning of food supplies, the Janjaweed have uprooted about 1.5 million people from their land. Some 200,000 have crossed into Chad, but the Janjaweedhave corralled the remainder into concentration camps within Sudan. There, because of government obstacles to international relief efforts and a shortage of aid, the internally displaced are facing death by starvation and disease.

USAID recently estimated that if the situation continues, as many as 350,000 people probably will die there by the end of the year.

And yet, the world media are only slowly coming to this story, and TV, hardly at all.

It is a very difficult environment for journalists to work in, to be sure. The government of Sudan is expert at stalling and delaying foreign correspondents seeking permission to enter Darfur, and access to the Janjaweed-encircled concentration camps is severely restricted. The other option is to get into Darfur with the rebels via Chad - a very dangerous way to go.

But the current lack of media coverage for this impending humanitarian catastrophe cannot be blamed solely on the difficulties - and expense - of working in a hard-to-reach war zone. Journalists who are getting into Darfur right now arrive at an eerily calm interregnum. They aren't there to witness Janjaweed attacks, they only see villages that were burnt to the ground weeks or months ago. For print and radio this is not an impossible obstacle, and articles and radio packages now appear regularly, though not frequently, in several serious newspapers and on radio.

The same cannot be said for TV, however. There was a tiny blip of television reports in mid-May based on interviews with refugees in Chad, but the few TV crews that were there have long since packed up and left. Even fewer have any intention of returning soon.

This moment between Darfur's ethnic cleansing and mass starvation is not made for TV as it is understood by news producers. They want active visceral footage to enliven a story. And, looming famine or no, video of burnt-out, abandoned villages only goes so far.

So, rather than report early on a horrific tragedy in the making - and thus possibly even contribute to its prevention or at least its amelioration - television news will wait for the starving to begin.

Once that happens, of course, everyone will send in a TV crew to film the dying and the dead. And reporters will link up to the world by videophone to ask why this has happened, and ask why no one did anything to stop it weeks and months before - that is, today, when television is refusing to cover the story.

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