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)