More than three million people have died due to fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the past five years. At least another three million people have been forced to flee their homes. This messy conflict at the heart of the continent has often been referred to as Africa’s first World War. Most of the deaths come from hunger and disease among a population of 55 million people struggling to scratch out a meager subsistence living in this vast nation covered by dense forests and jungle.
The fighting goes on relentlessly, yet few who live outside this region are being told much about it. There are numerous reasons why Congo has not been adequately covered over the years. The former Zaire is an incredibly difficult and frequently dangerous place for journalists to work, though in ways the barriers to coverage are very different than those encountered in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Enormous distances and inhospitable terrain are only the first obstacles. Costs paid to protect one’s safety in conflict zones quickly balloon as profiteers and opportunists in power demand hefty taxes, fees or bribes from foreigners, whether they are well-paid U.N. staff or journalists. Soldiers are rarely paid and prey upon journalists as a means of extorting money. Expensive press accreditation is nearly always required, but this turns out to be usually irrelevant on the ground. As a photographer, I know that arrests can occur daily, even when we are breaking no law other than ones fabricated on the spot by meddling petty officials seeking a fast buck.
Journalism’s Moral Obligation
What has driven me for the past five years in Congo to overcome obstacles are the images of human suffering that I know I must document. Scenes from this war are forever burned inside of me—children crying over the dead body of their mother; the bound and beaten corpses of young boys lying face down in the wet dirt, stripped of their clothes and their dignity, and the facial expression of a woman watching as her arm was hacked off and eaten in front of her.
At night these images linger in my mind. I carry them with me as I travel from village to village in Congo, where I hope each time not to stumble onto another horrific scene. Too often, I do. And each time I do, anger rises from inside of me as I am reminded of how often newspapers and magazines refuse to publish photographs from this war.
Much ink has been spilled on coverage of Iraq, Afghanistan and the September 11th attacks. Statistics on the number of dead, injured and displaced abound. But one humanitarian emergency should not be allowed to crowd out others or to be deemed geographically more important than any other. Reporting on deaths caused by greed, inhumanity or the hungry quest for political power is crucial no matter the location. Huge news stories of the early 1990’s, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars, did not eclipse media coverage of brutalities committed under the apartheid regime in South Africa. News coverage of that nation’s struggles played a major role in bringing about black majority rule in that country.
Reporters and photographers, photo and word editors, must accept the moral obligation of their profession. Yet, too often, choices of coverage seem based not on the merits of what is happening and its consequences to human life but rather on the perceived appeal to their readers. Many stories I’ve proposed about the Congo have been rejected due to what editors call “reader apathy” and “Africa fatigue.” I even received one reply from a leading international magazine saying, “We have covered Africa this year, so we won’t be doing anything for a while.” Yet each time a newspaper or magazine does publish my photo stories from Congo or elsewhere in Africa, I am inundated with responses and questions from curious readers thirsty for more information. So where is the apathy?
Some contend that lifestyle chasms between those who live in places such as London, New York, Paris and Milan and those who reside in Kinshasa, Kampala, Kigali or Lagos are part of the problem. Who really wants to read about destruction, misery, poverty and death while trying to enjoy a Saturday morning latte and brunch? Weekend readers are a fickle bunch not always drawn to hard-hitting reportage. But shouldn’t we at least give them the opportunity?
Instead, even as we have obtained the technological tools enabling us to create a global sense of shared hardships and opportunities, death tolls mount in African nations hit by war and famine. Important stories go untold, and readers are left ignorant of what is happening in places far away from them. I’ve always been taught that journalists must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With our words and pictures, we can trigger a reaction from the general public and from the leaders they elect.
During his Africa tour last year, President George W. Bush made a whistle-stop visit to the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. Greeted by dancing children, he spoke glowingly of the economic progress being made in one of Africa’s few bright spots. But Bush made no mention of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious rebel group that has been terrorizing the northern half of the country for 17 years, abducting thousands of children each year to use as child soldiers or sex slaves. The LRA, which murders, rapes and loots with impunity, is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Many Ugandans were shocked at his lack of effort and understanding.
Certainly journalists have a responsibility to report these issues, bringing attention to them and lessening the likelihood they will be ignored. But when world leaders won’t highlight issues such as this, responsibility falls on editors who should not demonstrate a similar lack of interest.
With the crisis in Sudan, officials from aid agencies and editors both claimed they were preoccupied with Iraq and did not realize until it was too late the extent of the catastrophe in the Western Darfur region of Sudan. When it was discovered, it still took months to convince many Western publications to publish stories about what is happening there and then many more months for aid agencies to raise the necessary funds for relief efforts. When potential donors do not see events unfolding on the pages of magazines and newspapers, they are reluctant to commit money. Therefore, when stories like this one are not treated as news, not only do we fail readers but, more importantly, we fail the people suffering and dying in these distant, forsaken parts of the world.
Africa’s problems are not going away. People will keep dying in conflicts in Congo, Central African Republic, Burundi, Sudan, Uganda and Ivory Coast. There’s unrest in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Yet foreign coverage in the West focuses almost entirely on Iraq. Of course, what happens there and in Afghanistan is of global significance, but that doesn’t mean places like Africa should be ignored. As we have seen with Afghanistan, failed states present dangers to people beyond the imaginary lines of national borders.
Africa has its fair share of failed states and totalitarian regimes. And while they might not hold the same global strategic value of Afghanistan or Iraq, the value of human life can be no different. The fate of Congolese peasants being hacked to death by militias or dying in the bush from preventable diseases such as malaria or sleeping sickness should be as newsworthy as others, shouldn’t they?
Steady and strong attention by journalists can foment change. Faulty leadership can be exposed. Suffering and injustices can be reported. And when they are, slowly change can come at a political level. But if the circumstances are hidden, the voices of those who are suffering are silenced, and explanations about the crisis aren’t provided to the rest of the world, then how can anyone be persuaded to act?
Marcus Bleasdale, a photojournalist who has been working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1999, is the author of “One Hundred Years of Darkness: A Jour-ney into the Heart of Congo,” published in 2002. His photographs have appeared in British, European and U.S. publications, and his work from Congo was awarded a first prize in the USA Picture of the Year awards in 2003 and first prize from the National Press Photographers Association. He recently received a grant from Photography for Photographers in France to continue his work in the DRC. For further information about Bleasdale’s work, contact John@ipgphotographers.com.