• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

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)




DR Congo Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Intense fighting has forced more than 64,000 Congolese to flee the country in recent months.

Donate to this crisis

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Edwige Kpomako is a woman in a hurry; but her energy also helps the refugee from Central African Republic (CAR) to cope with the tragedy that forced her to flee to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. Before violence returned to her country in 2012, the 25-year-old was studying for a Masters in American literature in Bangui, and looking forward to the future. "I started my thesis on the works of Arthur Miller, but because of the situation in CAR . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. Instead, she had to rush to the DRC with a younger brother, but her fiancée and 10-year old son were killed in the inter-communal violence in CAR.

After crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC, Edwige was transferred to Mole, a camp housing more than 13,000 refugees. In a bid to move on with her life and keep busy, she started to help others, assume a leadership role and take part in communal activities, including the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. She heads the women's committee, is engaged in efforts to combat sexual violence, and acts as a liaison officer at the health centre. She also teaches and runs a small business selling face creams. "I discovered that I'm not weak," said Edwige, who remains optimistic. She is sure that her country will come out of its nightmare and rebuild, and that she will one day become a human rights lawyer helping refugees.

American photojournalist Brian Sokol took these photos.

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

Over the past month, almost 6,300 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have left the Batalimo camp in the troubled Central African Republic and returned voluntarily to their homes in Equateur province. Their decision to go back is a further sign of the gravity of the situation in Central African Republic, where escalated violence since December has left hundreds of thousands internally displaced and forced almost 350,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. The refugees at Batalimo were among some 20,000 Congolese who had fled to the Central African Republic to escape inter-ethnic conflict back home. The return operation from Batalimo had been postponed several times for security and logistical reasons, but on April 10 the first convoy headed across the Oubangui River. The last arrived in the DRC on May 10. The UN refugee agency organized transportation of the refugees from Batalimo to the Central African Republic riverside town of Zinga, where they boarded boats for the crossing to Batanga or Libenge in Equateur province. In Batanga, the returnees were registered, provided with documentation and given a cash grant to help them reintegrate. They were then transported to their villages, where they will be monitored. Photographer Leonora Baumann followed one group back to the DRC.

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented Sister Angélique Namaika of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award at a gala ceremony in Geneva on Monday night.

Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate
Play video

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate

The 2013 winner of UNHCR`s Nansen Refugee Award is Sister Angelique Namaika, who works in the remote north east region of Democratic Republic of the Congo with survivors of displacement and abuse by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). She has helped over 2000 displaced women and girls who have suffered the most awful kidnapping and abuse, to pick up the pieces of their lives and become re-accepted by their communities.
Uganda: New Camp, New ArrivalsPlay video

Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
DR Congo: Tears of RapePlay video

DR Congo: Tears of Rape

Eastern DRC remains one of the most dangerous places in Africa, particularly for women.