The world’s most neglected crises: the role of the media

The ten most neglected human displacement crises in the world are in Africa. They are not the only ones of course, but those were the most important during 2021. This reveals the annual report issued by the Norwegian Council for Refugees. There are several angles to review reports like that. We can focus on some of the conflicts that are causing massive displacement, as has happened in recent months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or with the wave of jihadist violence in the Sahel (south of the Sahara), as well as the coups of state in countries such as Chad, Mali or Burkina Faso. We could focus on explaining the conflict in Ethiopia, the protests in Sudan, or the conflict in South Sudan. But the annual ranking published by the Norwegian Council emphasizes not only the existing problems in these countries, but also the fact that these are situations that are neglected—ignored, they say—by the international community. Much more so at times like the one we are experiencing, when attention has focused on the war in Ukraine. The report indicates that the media plays a role in this situation, and that to the extent that these crises generate few headlines, they attract little global assistance and disappear from the radar. The issue, however, is more complex and worth examining.

First, consider that, in effect, these are truly relevant crises. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, has produced some 5.5 million displaced people. The internal war in Ethiopia, unleashed since November 2020, has also generated more than a million displaced people, has produced famine and a humanitarian crisis that is difficult to measure. Furthermore, when the Tigray rebels came close to taking the capital, Addis Ababa, in the middle of 2021, the government of Abiy Ahmed—a Nobel Peace Prize winner—decided to deprive thousands of ethnic Tigrayans living in that capital of their freedom. , which presaged a scenario of genocide, in case the situation had worsened. Fortunately that did not happen, and, although things have been moving since then, the conflict has not been extinguished. The threat to the very existence of Ethiopia as a nation, a country of 115 million inhabitants, passed without, in many places, being given the attention that the case deserved.

Another case of considerable importance is that of the Sahel region where extremist groups have been operating for a long time, some of them linked to Al Qaeda, others to ISIS, continuously perpetrating dozens of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, massacres and attacks against institutions. All of this receives very little global coverage. As one of the reactions to the state of insecurity, that same region has seen several coups, one after another, with negative consequences for the freedoms and human rights of populations of millions. As if that is not enough, to this we must add that the Sahel region is one of the three strips detected by the Ecological Risk Report (IEP, 2021) as the most highly vulnerable on the planet to environmental effects (not only due to climate change), a situation that already has a high correlation with the conflict, human displacement and refuge. The above are just examples of the crises we are talking about.

Second, it is also true that, receiving little global media coverage, these crises rarely appear on our radar screens. Suddenly a high-impact attack in Nigeria that produces dozens of deaths, or when hundreds of girls are kidnapped, generates a demand for information, but this is later reduced and a return to other types of topics that seem more attractive. As a result, the report notes that global humanitarian assistance is not flowing to these sites. These issues are defeated in the competition for resources, which are already quite scarce. They also lose space in the already oversaturated agendas of governments and global organizations.

If we add to this the fact that in several of those countries the freedoms to inform are highly restricted by the military and governments that are in power today, then an explosive cocktail is produced for those regions: there is not enough information from inside, nor is there interest and information generated from outside.

Third, despite what the aforementioned report says, the truth is that the role of the media in an environment such as the one described is quite complex. To the traditional competition between traditional media for the attention of the audience, today it is necessary to add the enhanced competition in an ecosystem plagued by social networks, with images, videos and texts flowing constantly and virally, capturing people’s time (which is naturally limited) and, above all, the interest of these audiences in the midst of local issues, scandals, or simply in an environment with content that is attractive to those who consume it.

Then, in addition, it happens that a very serious crisis appears, such as the war in Ukraine. Such a case, probably not seen since World War II, presents potential and latent risks of escalation. Throughout these months it has been impossible to rule out that, if important factors are neglected, this crisis could turn into a conflict between great powers. Additionally, the economic and social consequences of a conflict like the one in Ukraine, such as the food crisis or the rise in fuel prices, have greater repercussions throughout the planet. So not only because of what is happening there, already enormously serious, but because of what it implies for the world, an issue like this needs, in effect, to consume a considerable part of the energy of the media, which, moreover, already have their agendas saturated with local issues, highly important to their target audiences.

It is clear, then, that the media do not have a simple task. It is also clear that the end result is that there are dozens of humanitarian crises on the planet—deaths, human displacement, hunger—that simply do not get covered in global spaces and end up being largely neglected.

There is no simple or unique answer to what has been said. Perhaps the first step consists, without pointing the finger at anyone, in accepting the complexity of the issue, understanding that it is not a matter of crises “separated” or “separate” from a system of which all our countries are part, evaluating what In ways, the interconnections of the system end up impacting the whole, although we do not always see it clearly—example: the links between transnational criminal organizations and several of the terrorist groups that I mention from the Sahel—and then, perhaps, make us co-responsible. International organizations have tasks to fulfill in terms of raising awareness, attention, and combating ignorance of these crises; also our governments, the civil societies of different countries, especially those organizations that focus on global issues, academia, educational institutions, and yes, also the media trying to find balance, as far as possible. In addition, in my experience and thanks to spaces that I am grateful and appreciate in which I am allowed to participate, when the media make an effort to explain their relevance, many of the topics mentioned do provoke surprising interest in a considerable part of the audiences, which that can contribute to solving some of the dilemmas that, we know, your work faces on a daily basis.

Twitter: @maurimm

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The world’s most neglected crises: the role of the media