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Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Media: Why did they get so much wrong?

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1997

By Nik Gowing

The international spotlight shifted from the fighting and slaughter in the Great Lakes months ago. But there remains a quiet legacy of shame, soul-searching and feelings of guilt in the media and among humanitarian agencies who were involved.

The rush to claim the information high-ground led to a deeply unsettling chasm between reality and the way the unfolding horrors were portrayed and gave rise to a series of troubling questions.

Why were non governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media so effectively deceived, misled and shut out? Why wasn't international opinion effectively mobilized?

Have warring factions adopted new doctrines of information warfare being perfected by the most powerful military nations?

Why did humanitarian agencies and the media fail so conspicuously on the issue of handling information and why did they get so much wrong?

Belatedly, they discovered the sharply reduced limits of their assumed influence. They realized that in a new age of satellite text and lightweight mobile video and voice technology they were vulnerable to even greater deception.

They discovered new risks when warring factions could now monitor international communications and threaten retaliation within a couple of hours if they did not like what was being reported, especially if it contained sensitive military information or evidence of killings.

Central to these combined failures was a naivete and fundamental lack of understanding of the new role of information management in conflict. There is now good evidence despite the deceptive sight of seemingly naive adolescent troops in ill-fitting uniforms that all of the key players in Central Africa had gone a long way to master the new principles of information warfare being developed by leading developed nations.

In that, the local African forces were far ahead of the NGOs and media who assumed for too long they were reporting a 'tin pot war' and monitoring a crisis that easily fitted the classic template of a regional conflict like Bosnia.

The press and aid workers were outflanked by a clever and ruthless campaign of information conceived at the highest levels which they found impossible to counter effectively. NGOs were often naive, and self-promotion, speculation and extrapolation led to serious consequences: the absence of hard, reliable facts and the loss of confidence in the agencies as reliable information sources.

Despite the lessons of the Great Lakes, humanitarian agencies continue to founder on the issue of information, failing to understand the new dynamics of real-time information in conflict.

Information is no longer just about press releases and sound-bite interviews. It is about anyone in a conflict and what happens to their information, how it is eventually used and by whom.

In the real-time environment of short news cycles and instant communications what is legitimate 'humanitarian' information to an aid worker is intelligence gathering and a military threat to a warring faction.

NGOs continue to treat information handling as secondary, a preserve of often ill-prepared press officers, when it is in fact about guaranteeing the survival of an operation.

On the media side, it is clear virtually none of the reporting failures identified by the Joint Steering Committee Report on Rwanda 1994 have been considered, let alone acted upon. Even experienced Africa hands who admitted a degree of guilt at their failures in Rwanda in 1994, confirmed when it comes to accuracy and balance, they by and large failed again.

There is a cynical belief in conflict management circles that 'lessons learned' in one crisis become 'lessons forgotten' in the next. Institutional memory becomes institutional amnesia.

Maybe this time it can be different. Too much is at stake; whether conflict information is reliable enough to be acted upon; whether NGOs and the media are credible anymore; but ultimately whether the lives of potential victims can be saved by decisive political action based on reliable and balance a information.

Nik Gowing is an international TV presenter and journalist who specializes in the study of the role of media in conflict management.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)




Congolese Medics on Call For Refugees

Jean de Dieu, from the Central African Republic (CAR), was on his way to market in mid-January when he was shot. The 24-year-old shepherd and his family had fled their country two months earlier and sought refuge on an island in the Oubangui River belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sometimes Jean crossed back to check on his livestock, but last week his luck ran out when he went to take an animal to market. A few hours later, in an improvised operating room in Dula, a Congolese border town on the banks of the Oubangui, medics fight to save his life.

Jean's situation is not unique. Over the past two years, war in the Central African Republic has driven more than 850,000 people from their homes. Many have been attacked as they fled, or killed if they tried to return. In neighbouring DRC, medical resources are being stretched to their limits.

Photographer Brian Sokol, on assignment for UNHCR, captured the moment when Jean and others were rushed into the operating theatre. His images bear witness to desperation, grief, family unity and, ultimately, a struggle for survival.

Congolese Medics on Call For Refugees

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province have long referred to the region between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto as the "triangle of death." Despite the presence of UN peace-keepers and government military successes in other parts of the country, the situation in the resources-rich Katanga has been getting worse over the past two years. Conflict between a secessionist militia group and the government and between the Luba (Bantu) and Twa (Pygmy) ethnic groups has left thousands dead and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people since 2012, including over 70,000 in the last three months. UNHCR has expressed its "deep concern" about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in northern Katanga. The violence includes widescale looting and burning of entire villages and human rights' violations such as murder, mass rape and other sexual violence, and the forced military recruitment of children.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services. There are 28 sites hosting the displaced in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education. The following striking photographs by Brian Sokol for UNHCR show some of the despair and suffering.

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

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