A famine is raging through southern Africa–a famine that Doctors Without Borders has called among the worst in Africa in the past decade. The international relief organization CARE reports that the famine “is largely the result of one of the worst droughts in a decade” and that “severe hunger–even starvation–threatens millions, particularly among the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, and pregnant and nursing women” in Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
This is occurring against the backdrop of an AIDS epidemic in Africa that has claimed 25 million lives and counting, leaving behind about 14 million orphans. It’s a tragic story, full of suffering, especially of children; it’s also a story of the heroism of those who relentlessly struggle against the odds under the harshest conditions. It’s a story that produces haunting pictures of despairing mothers, of fading children — and of the courageous people who are working against time, against all odds, to try to restore life.
But it’s not good television, apparently.
Network by network
An analysis of transcripts of news programs for the six months between March 11 and September 11, 2002, by the three major broadcast networks–including daily news shows and such weekly programs as Nightline and 60 Minutes–demonstrates a striking lack of attention to the plight of Southern Africa. The rare stories were almost always without any substantive reference to the role of rich countries, transnational corporations and the international finance system in triggering or worsening the crisis. Analysis seemed to be present to the degree that blame could be put on the shoulders of African nations–fairly or not.
The best network–among dismal competition–was ABC News, which had a total of 14 mentions of the words “famine” or “starvation” in connection with Africa. Of these 14 stories:
Two were about non-African subjects and mentioned the famine in passing;Two were about Colin Powell being heckled at the World Summit on Sustainable Development for blaming the famine on Zimbabwe’s seizure of farms owned by the white minority and Zambia’s rejection of genetically modified corn;Two were about the problems food aid shipments face in transport, such as smuggling and mismanagement; One was about the plight of Zimbabwe’s white farmers and mentioned the famine in that context;One was about genetically modified corn being turned away by Zambia’s government; Three were items in the overseas briefing section, which run about 50-60 words, that were largely devoted to criticisms of Zimbabwe’s policy of land reform; Three were items in the overseas briefing section reporting U.N. warnings that 10 million people in Southern Africa faced starvation, and Doctors Without Borders’ announcement that half a million people in Angola alone faced starvation.
CBS had a total of seven stories during the same period:
Four of the seven stories were about Zambia’s refusal to accept genetically modified corn,Two mentioned the famine in the context of Zimbabwe’s land reform,One was a 57-word brief that stated that 10 million people faced starvation.
NBC had a single story regarding famine or starvation in Africa in its news programs during the same six-month period. Ironically, NBC‘s lone piece (8/9/02)–about Veronica, a 12-year-old AIDS orphan struggling to feed her siblings–was the only story among the three networks that was filed from the ground and concentrated on the fact that children were starving. The NBC story did mention that the famine was looming since the strategic grain reserve, meant to be kept at hand for emergencies exactly like this one, had been sold off. NBC, however, did not mention why it was sold: The president of Malawi had publicly stated (BBC, 4/9/02) that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank “insisted that, since Malawi had a surplus [of maize] and the [government’s] National Food Reserve Agency had this huge loan, they had to sell the maize to repay the commercial banks.”
Blaming the victims
As can be seen from the list, almost all the coverage concentrated on the perceived faults of African governments. Zimbabwe, which is only one country out of the six that face starvation, generated most of the coverage. Most of the criticism of Zimbabwe came from U.S. officials and white farmers who had lost their property. Only once (CBS, 8/18/02) was it mentioned that in a country of 12 million black people, the white minority of 40,000 owns most of the productive land–a legacy of the colonial occupation of the country that had ended 20 years ago.
According to the London Guardian (4/3/00), “About 4,500 white farmers own 11 million hectares of Zimbabwe’s prime agricultural land, while about 1 million blacks own 16 million hectares, often in drought-prone regions.” In other words, this is a country where a minority of less than one hundredth of one percent owns almost two-thirds as much land as the majority–and owns the choicest land, because they once ruled the country.
These whites were generally portrayed as hard-working, honest farmers who just wanted to till their land, rather than as giant land-owners who had usurped the most productive territory–although they were surely that, given the amount of starvation that such a small number of farms was reportedly able to cause.
Mugabe’s administration in Zimbabwe has been thoroughly criticized by his own citizens, and the subject is clearly newsworthy. However, the omission of basic facts such as the skewed land ownership turned a potentially useful examination of the motives of Zimbabwe’s land reform program into a one-dimensional promotion for a single message: It’s their own fault they’re starving.
Zambia’s refusal of genetically modified corn also generated what was, relatively speaking, a flurry of coverage. While this finally got CBS to cover the issue of the famine (8/30/02), only once was it mentioned that a major concern was the consequences for the ecosystem and the economy if people planted some of the corn–quite a likely scenario since, as seen in all famine situations, what corn seed stock did exist has probably been eaten by the starving population. This is critical because Zambia exports corn to the European Union–an issue that CBS alluded to only once by saying one of Zambia’s concerns was that Europe was “nervous” about GM corn. In fact, far beyond “nervous,” the EU for all practical purposes bans imports of GM foods, and Zambia would indeed lose access to European markets.
It was also not reported that the U.N.’s World Food Program began acquiring non-GM corn and wheat for distribution in Zambia, or that Zambia had agreed to distribute milled GM corn that could not be planted. Perhaps most alarmingly for U.S. consumers, none of the networks noted that the Zambia’s request to the U.S. government for proof of the long-term safety of GM corn was answered with assurances (AP, 8/22/02) rather than with studies and reports.
CBS and the other networks were uninterested in the famine that continued to rage in Lesotho, Angola, Malawi and Mozambique, countries that notably did not fit into the “it’s their fault” theme–all four had accepted GM foods, and had no land reform program upsetting production.
Causes closer to home
Meanwhile, evidence is surfacing that the current famine may actually more the result of actions of the U.S. and other Northern countries, rather than a stroke of bad luck and/or mismanagement on the part of African nations. The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been warning that it’s quite possible Africa’s droughts are now being largely exacerbated or triggered by global warming (IPCC/UNEP report, 2/21/01)–a phenomenon for which Africa is the least to blame, as Africa, with 14 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for only 3 percent of global CO2 emission. UNEP and IPCC have also warned that Africa suffers disproportionately from global warming.
Recent scientific papers also suggest that pollution from industrialized nations contributed to the tragic Ethiopian famine in the 1980s (AP, 7/21/02). These issues received only one mention on network news during the period studied–a reference on ABC (3/26/02) to a possible connection between climate change and drought in Africa.
The almost complete lack of coverage regarding the global warming/famine connection was made more striking by the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa. George W. Bush refused to attend the summit, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell instead–who was heckled by the delegates. The interruptions in Powell’s speech occurred mainly at two points: first when he tried to blame Zambia and Zimbabwe for the famine, and again when he stated that “the United States is taking action to meet environmental challenges, including global climate change.”
The eruption of anger at Colin Powell among delegates and dignitaries from around the world might have been better understood had any of the networks explained the context of the famine, and reminded viewers that the U.S. withdrew from the Kyoto treaty earlier this year. During the WSSD, the U.S. further antagonized those concerned about global warming by torpedoing all attempts to set goals for increasing solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. Another link between policies of the rich world and the famine that was repeatedly made my delegates at the WSSD, but ignored by the networks, was the issue of farm subsidies; they argued that it’s not possible for the poor world to keep its agriculture alive when rich nations lavishly subsidize the exports of their own farmers (Food First, 9/02).
Not even Colin Powell’s subsequent visit to Angola, one of the famine-stricken countries, prompted the networks to cover the famine. Angola had been a breaking story over the summer because a 30-year-old civil war, with one of the sides armed and financed by the United States and apartheid South Africa, had just ended. The international aid community had access to Angola’s remote corners for the first time in decades, discovering shocking levels of starvation.
Powell’s visit to Angola was indeed spurred by the end of the civil war, but he was there neither to apologize nor to assess the damage; rather, his trip was driven by Angola’s 11 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, second only to Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa, and the country’s non-membership in OPEC. The famine in Angola was apparently on nobody’s agenda: During the whole six-month period, it was mentioned only once by the three networks.
In 53 words, ABC News (6/12/02) duly reported that Doctors Without Borders attributed the starvation to “the chronic criminal neglect of the Angolan government,” and the organization had accused the U.N. of being “shamefully slow in responding to the crisis since the civil war there ended earlier this year.” In keeping with the “it’s their own fault” rule, no mention was made of previous deep involvement of the United States in the war that devastated the country.
Some of the most surreal coverage occurred on Nightline (7/17/02) when Chris Bury reported that “the overall response still falls far short of what the U.N. says is needed,” and went on to explain that “part of that is blamed on the slow onset of famine. By the time those familiar television images of starving children appear, it’s too late to help them.” So the lack of attention is not the media’s fault but somehow the famine’s fault because its “slow onset” delayed the images.
Never mind that the U.N. and aid agencies had been warning of the famine in Southern Africa at least since February 2002; never mind that images of malnourished children had been available for months; never mind that it is quite possible to file a news story about dangers posed to children who have not yet managed to consume all their body fat and develop the swollen bellies and aged faces of kwashiorkor. Never mind that all famines, almost by definition, have a slow onset.
We are not going to report the perfectly predictable course of events because they have not yet happened, the media seem to be saying, and when they do happen, we are going to duly inform you that “it’s too late to help them”–and continue to ignore the story for all practical purposes. It’s their fault, anyway.