Sep 1 1992

Hunger in Africa — A Story Still Untold

Question: When does a drought that threatens millions of human lives become news that fits the front page of the New York Times?

Answer: When animals die.

That’s the rule New York Times editors apparently followed in the week of July 5-12, 1992, when they published five substantial stories in eight days on countries ravaged by drought and hunger in east and southern Africa.

Times editors seem determined to re-prove the point Extra! made a year ago (cover story, 7-8/91): that the U.S. press gives “more attention to thelives of animals — featuring safari stories on elephants, rhinos and other endangered species — than to the specter of death from starvation haunting millions of human beings in Africa.”

During the week in question, the Times published three stories totaling 84 inches on African animals, along with two less-prominently displayed pieces totalling 41 inches with a focus on African people. All the articles in this rare burst of Africa coverage were by the Times‘ Nairobi correspondent, Jane Perlez.

The fate of 2,000 elephants was the focus of the only story to make page 1. Its headline, “Zimbabwe Kills Starving Elephants for Food”, might lead one to believe that a southern African nation was launching a mad orgy of violence against harmless, helpless wildlife. Yet Perlez’ own well-researched reporting actually told an opposite story, showing how Zimbabwe game wardens have successfully protected elephants against poaching. She reported that their carefully controlled culling program, endorsed by World Wildlife Fund officials, was designed to save elephant herds amidst a killing drought.

Not until the ninth paragraph does one learn that, in addition to 2,000 elephants, 5,000,000 Zimbabwean human beings need food aid this year because of a drought that “has devastated crops from Mozambique across to Angola and in South Africa as well.”

African animals continued their parade through the Times all week. On July 7, a 28-inch Perlez report (“Science Times,” page 2) described the Zimbabwe black rhino’s “last stand.” The following Sunday, the travel section allocated 38 inches to a Perlez travel piece on elephant viewing at Botswana’s $200+ per day game parks.

The human impact of southern Africa’s drought — the worst for the region this century — made the headlines only once, in a 24-inch, page 11 story,July 10. Even that piece placed politics ahead of human suffering with thisheadline: “Mugabe’s Aura Fades as Drought Sears Zimbabwe.”

The fault does not seem to lie with Perlez, who packs considerable insight on Africa’s human needs and concerns even into the animal stories her editors obviously prefer. In the travel section, for example, Perlez highlights African complaints about the manner in which Western wildlife enthusiasts often push for international regulations which penalize African nations, such as Botswana and Zimbabwe, that have developed successful wildlife protection plans.

The most telling commentary on Western neglect of African need can be found in Perlez’ July 12 (17 inches, page 12) report on Somalia’s war-induced famine. She uses a quote from a Red Cross official to implicitly underscore the double standard in Western coverage of human tragedy. After noting that 500,000 Somalis will starve unless aid is immediately doubled, International Committee of the Red Cross Director Peter Fuchs stressed to Perlez that Somalia’s human disaster is “quantitatively much worse than that in the Yugoslav republics.”

Can there be any doubt that if half a million white Europeans faced death by famine, their story, like Yugoslavia’s, would receive the front page coverage it deserves?