Mar 1 1993

Tragedy Made Simple

Media on the Somalia intervention

The first question national media need to ask themselves about Somalia is: Where were we? In January 1991, six leading relief agencies warned that 20 million people in Africa faced starvation unless food aid was forthcoming–mainly in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. (See Hunger in Africa — A Story Still Untold, Extra! September 1992) In the fall of 1991, U.N. officials estimated that 4.5 million Somalis faced grave food shortages. In all of 1991, Somalia got three minutes of attention on the three evening network news shows. From January to June 1992, Somalia got 11 minutes (Tyndall Report, cited in Inter Press Service, 12/4/92).

By July, when the news media began to pay attention, 25 percent of Somalia’s children under five may already have died, according to one international aid group (Medicins Sans Frontieres).

While some people have cited the intervention in Somalia as an example of the power of TV pictures to compel governments to act, the fact is that the TV networks were hardly interested in Somalia until after the U.S. government started using military planes to airlift supplies there. Instead of waiting for the U.S. government to lead the way, the media should immediately report on those other countries where food aid is urgently needed, such as Sudan, Mozambique and Liberia.

U.S. vs. U.N.

There was a constant sense in news coverage that a full-scale U.S. military operation was the only way to save lives. “The American troops are the only solution. Every other solution has been tried,” one relief worker was quoted in the New York Times (12/6/92). In fact, many in the relief community believed that while military intervention may have been necessary, it should have been done with a U.N. force, not by the U.S. acting virtually alone.

The U.N., these experts believe, could have carried out an effective relief mission months earlier with a much smaller force. But U.N. peacekeeping forces were never fully deployed, largely because the U.S. mission to the U.N. obstructed full-scale peacekeeping efforts in Somalia (and other countries such as Angola, Namibia and Mozambique), on the grounds that it would cost too much.

The U.S. is chronically behind in its payments to the U.N., owing some $415 million, including $120 million for peacekeeping missions. This reluctance on the part of the U.S. government to carry its share of the peacekeeping burden contrasts sharply with the frequent media portrayal of the U.S. as the only country willing or able to help in humanitarian causes. This perception resulted in self-congratulatory commentary reminiscent of the Gulf War, as when Murray Kempton wrote (Newsday, 12/2/92), “A visitor could walk the corridors of the United Nations fairly swollen with the majesty of the United States that could at last glory in its conscience instead of its might.”

The strategic question

If the U.S. has not consistently acted in an altruistic manner toward starving people in Africa, why did it dispatch troops to Somalia at this point? There have been frequent media denials that geopolitical considerations might have entered in to the decision. The Washington Post reported (12/6/92) that “unlike previous large-scale operations, there is no U.S. strategic or economic interest in the Somalia deployments.”

But the Nation (12/21/92) referred to Somalia as “one of the most strategically sensitive spots in the world today: astride the Horn of Africa, where oil, Islamic fundamentalism and Israeli, Iranian and Arab ambitions and arms are apt to crash and collide.” Given that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. jousted over the Horn of Africa for years, the Nation‘s assessment may have been more realistic.

There was also little discussion of the fact that northern Somalia (which has declared itself independent under the name Somaliland–Oakland Tribune, 12/21/92) contains mineral deposits and potential oil reserves. Considered geologically analogous to oil-rich Yemen across the Red Sea, it has been the site of oil exploration by such companies as Amoco, Chevron and Conoco. Not until six weeks into the operation (1/18/93) did a journalist for a major media outlet, Mark Fineman of the L.A. Times, report on the “close relationship between Conoco and the U.S. intervention force,” which used Conoco’s Mogadishu headquarters as a “de facto U.S. embassy.”

Ignoring the Causes

If the solutions to Somalia’s crisis and the reasons for the U.S. reaction are generally given simplistic treatment, the root causes of famine are seldom dealt with in any more depth. Until the ’70s, Somalia was self-sufficient in grain, and its agricultural land is productive enough that the country should have been able to feed itself despite the drought.

Often references were made to warfare as the cause of famine in Somalia, but usually the political context was ignored or distorted, as in the New York Times‘ Elaine Sciolino’s comment (12/6/92) that “countries crumble without the stabilizing glue of the cold war to hold them together.” In fact, of course, the Cold War is largely to blame for Somalia’s plight, as Bread for the World’s Sharon Pauling pointed out:

The current humanitarian crisis has its origins in deposed dictator [Mohamed] Siad Barre’s militarized approach to subduing Somali factions. For over 20 years, Barre’s regime used Soviet and U.S. weapons to ruthlessly repress the Somali people through divide-and-rule tactics. The country has been left with a legacy of clan fighting, death and starvation.

The 1969-91 Siad Barre dictatorship bears direct responsibility for the current famine. The Somali clan hardest hit by the famine, the Rahanweyn, was the group living adjacent to the lands of Siad Barre’s clan, the Marehan, and consequently had much of its fertile land stolen during the dictatorship (Africa Report, 11-12/92). It was this political conflict, not natural disaster, that created the desperate condition of many of the starvation victims seen on TV.

Siad Barre’s U.S. backing

The U.S. responsibility for supporting and arming Siad Barre is seldom acknowledged by U.S. mass media. One of the noteworthy exceptions was by ABC‘s Peter Jennings (12/7/92), who reported that Siad Barre had received “almost $200 million in military aid and almost half a billion in economic aid.” Jennings explained why the U.S. ignored Siad Barre’s corruption and human rights abuses: “To Washington’s satisfaction, he was more than willing to keep [Soviet-allied] Ethiopia tied down in a debilitating war…. Millions of innocent civilians paid the price.” Jennings’ report, from his New York anchor desk, was more informative than anything produced by anchors Brokaw and Rather, who felt a need to travel to Somalia to greet the Marines.

Even more useful was a segment on the Somalia crisis reported by Charlayne Hunter-Gault for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (12/2/92). Hunter-Gault brought on Human Rights Watch’s Holly Burkhalter, who noted that at the same time that Washington was claiming it was trying to moderate Siad Barre with $50 million in “security related assistance,” the dictator “engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against the North that by our calculations left about 50,000 Somali civilians dead, [and] forced a half million…Somali civilians across the borders into the desert of Ethiopia.”

More typically, mainstream media viewed Somalia’s problems as indigenous and eternal: “Limited natural resources and internal disputes have historically kept stability at a distance. And the clans of Somalia have regularly battled one another into a state of anarchy” (Time, 12/14/92).

Economic factors

Another underexplored issue is the economic causes of famine–in particular, the way the U.S. and international agencies like the IMF pressure underdeveloped countries to shift agriculture from local subsistence to export crops. To take a non-Somali example, Zimbabwe cut corn planting from 895,000 acres to 245,000 acres because U.S. AID encouraged them to grow, of all things, high-grade tobacco. The IMF told Zimbabwe that its Grain Marketing Board had to be run to make a profit, so it sold much of the grain it was storing. The result is that Zimbabwe, which used to be the breadbasket of Southern Africa, now faces major famine (Southern Africa Perspectives, ’92 #2).

While news accounts stress the aid Western nations give to Africa, the amount of money taken from Africa in the form of profits and income on loans (an average of $22 billion a year) is greater than all Western aid to Africa ($10 billion a year). This disparity has contributed to Africa’s debt burden, which now stands at $235 billion (IMF World Economic Outlook, 10/92). These structural economic problems are seldom addressed as part of the cause of Africa’s chronic hunger.

Food aid itself is a controversial subject, though the debate seldom made it into mainstream forums. Donations of food are generally used by the West as a way of reducing agricultural surpluses, a practice that tends to discourage local food production. One former relief worker, Michael Maren, argued in the Village Voice (1/19/93) that “hundreds of billions of dollars in food aid over the last 30 years have left the continent more famine-prone and dependent on outside relief than ever.”

Colonial mindset

Much coverage of Somalia has reflected a colonial mindset, arrogant about U.S. power and disparaging of Somalis. CBS‘s Alan Pizzy compared the U.S. intervention to the Marine presence in Lebanon (12/9/92): “As in Beirut, it’s just a few good men trying to help another nation in need, another treacherous country where all the members of all the murderous factions look alike.”

The New York Times‘ Elaine Sciolino (12/6/92) went so far as to suggest, citing U.S. officials, that Somalia should be turned into a colony: “One state could govern Somalia in a formal ‘trusteeship’ until it is ready to govern itself, in the same way that Italy administered much of what is now Somalia until it became independent in 1960” — a benign view of Italy’s role that probably would be shared by few Somalis.

The Somali people are generally depicted as either passive victims waiting for U.S. help or as drug-crazed thugs. Actually, as Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, former officials of Africa Watch, have written, most of the famine relief efforts are being carried out by Somalis themselves. Yet television’s relief heroes are almost all Americans or Europeans. In an article in the L.A. Times (12/10/92), Omaar and de Waal wrote that Somalis have been “reduced to nameless extras in the shadows behind Western aid workers or disaster tourists.”

News reports tried so hard to create an idyllic image of Somalis embracing U.S. help that one reporter was startled by the contrast between the real Somalia and the TV version. “I searched the once-grand streets of Mogadishu for signs of what had appeared to be a cute little made-for-TV military operation,” wrote Andrea Peyser in the New York Post (1/5/93). “I expected scenes of rugged troops embracing happy, affectionate and grateful natives. Here’s the reality: In Mogadishu, you’re more likely to see a soldier shove a kid out of the way than hug him.”

The political factions in Somalia were discussed in cartoon-like stereotypes: Time (12/14/92) referred to them as “Mad Max characters,” and Newsweek‘s Joe Klein (12/14/92) called them “thugs, warlords and micro-messiahs.” Despite the dismissive treatment of the so-called warlords–“Taking on the Thugs” was the swaggering Time headline (12/14/92)–little attention was given to the complaints by relief groups and Africa experts that the U.S. forces lent credence to military leaders like Aidid and Mahdi by recognizing them as local authorities.

Journalists’ drug craze

One detail of Somali culture that seemed to fascinate journalists–perhaps because it tied in with domestic stereotypes–is the chewing of a plant called khat. Reporters are constantly pointing out that the young men with guns are especially dangerous because they’re “high on khat.” “Youth, guns and khat–it’s a deadly combination,” reported ABC‘s Jim Laurie (12/7/92) in an especially sensationalistic segment.

People familiar with Somalia and with khat give a different picture of the drug. “It’s used as a social drug in much the same way that we would use coffee,” Dr. Andrew Weil told NPR (12/8/92). “I think that khat is a relatively mild stimulant…. As with any stimulant, if you take too much of it, it can make you jittery and anxious. But I can’t see it as a major factor in what’s going on over there.”

Reporters, however, couldn’t seem to get enough of it. CBS‘s Dan Rather, interviewing a Somali clan leader (12/8/92), pressed him: “I have heard people tell me that when the American troops come, they must be very careful in the afternoon because many people chew on khat and get reckless.” The leader laughed and replied: “No, it’s not like whiskey.”

Tragedy as melodrama

A tragic situation in Somalia, with complex political, economic and historical roots, comes across in the bulk of media coverage as a simple situation–helpless victims menaced by thugs–with an obvious solution: Send in the Marines. This melodramatic depiction of events, while meshing with the need for commercial media to tell exciting, easily grasped stories, did not do justice to the reality of the Somalian situation, and did nothing to help the U.S. public understand either the causes of or the realistic responses to the famine that threatens millions across Africa.

Rather than dealing with their failure to treat seriously the context of the Somali famine, the most-discussed issue for the media in the crisis seemed to be whether camera crews should have used lights in taping the landing of the Marines at the Mogadishu airport. Rather than arguing about what amounted to a Pentagon photo op that got out of hand, media self-critics might better shine a light on the overall failure of mainstream media to educate viewers so that tragedies like the Somalia famine might be averted.