Congo Ignored: When 5 Million Dead Aren't Worth Two Stories a Year

By Julie Hollar · 15 May 2009

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Picture: Change the World
Picture: Change the World

The wars that have wracked the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996, killing well over 5 million people (International Rescue Committee, 1/08) in what may be the deadliest conflict since World War II, are officially over. A peace agreement was signed in 2002, and general elections were held in 2006.

But conflict and the humanitarian crisis continue. The most recent survey (IRC, 1/08) estimated that 45,000 people are dying each month from conflict-related causes (primarily hunger and disease), nearly the same shocking rate as during the war itself. And with the recent flare-up of violence in Congo’s volatile east, things don’t seem to be getting any better.

To put the death rate in perspective, at the peak of the Darfur crisis, the conflict-related death rate there was less than a third of the Congo’s, and by 2005 it had dropped to less than 4,000 per month (CRED, 5/26/05). The United Nations has estimated some 300,000 may have died in total as a result of the years of conflict in Darfur (CRED, 4/24/08,, 3/25/09); the same number die from the Congo conflict every six and a half months. 

And yet, in the New York Times, which covers the Congo more than most U.S. outlets, Darfur has consistently received more coverage since it emerged as a media story in 2004 (Extra!, 1–2/08). The Times gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, while Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly 10 times the rate of those in Darfur.

Graph: John Emerson (

In the past five years, you would have seen just one single segment on the Congo on CBS Evening News. You would only have heard of the Congo on Fox’s Special Report during a brief period in 2005, when peacekeepers for the U.N., a perennial Fox villain, were accused of sexual abuse on duty there. And the Congo coverage you saw on CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s 360 more likely than not invoked endangered gorillas or Angelina Jolie.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof, whose persistent crusading has done much to increase Darfur’s visibility in the U.S., wrote on his New York Times blog (6/20/07) that the reason he writes so much more about Darfur than Congo despite the disparity in magnitude between the two crises is that

Darfur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty.… Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about: An Arab government in Khartoum arming Arab militias to kill members of black African tribes. We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty.

Kristof’s distinction is spurious. Massacres have occurred in both countries, and U.N. investigations have found crimes against humanity in both; while it has found possible genocide in the Congo (U.N., 7/2/97), a U.N. commission concluded that the Sudanese government had not pursued a policy of genocide in Darfur (U.N., 1/25/05). Kristof’s depiction of the Darfur conflict occurring between an “Arab” government and militias versus “black Africans” is likewise specious; the distinction is more political than cultural or racial (Extra!, 1-2/08). Both conflicts deserve urgent diplomatic and media attention, but it’s hard to imagine what moral—or journalistic—standards could justify the dramatically limited media coverage afforded the Congo over the last 10 years.

There’s no lack of commentary on the Congo’s extraordinarily paltry coverage; in fact, quite often the media attention the country does get is of the “it’s shocking this isn’t getting more media attention” variety. A Time piece (5/28/06) by Simon Robinson lamented that the country is “among the very worst places on earth. Yet Congo’s troubles rarely make daily news headlines, and the country is often low on international donors’ lists of places to help.” A Chicago Tribune piece by Paul Salopek (12/17/07) called the Congo “The Invisible War,” noting the “jarring disparity” between attention to Darfur and the Congo. Of course, it’s editors who decide what pieces run, how often and with what prominence—and it seems most editors have decided that running the occasional chin-scratching piece about lack of coverage will suffice in place of coverage itself. The Congo is not a forgotten country; it’s an ignored country.

As former Associated Press reporter Bryan Mealer wrote of the pieces he filed from the Congo (All Things Must Fight to Live, 2008): "If the story involved something exciting such as cannibalism, endangered gorillas, or little girls being raped with machetes, it might have big enough wings to survive its journey across the Atlantic. Everything else left the desk and crashed straight into its watery grave."

Indeed, from 2004 through 2008, of Anderson Cooper’s 44 shows that covered the Congo, only 16 didn't include the plight of the country’s gorillas or the perspective of Angelina Jolie. In an extended interview with Jolie (6/20/06), Cooper asked the star about paparazzi, “Do you ever just want to yell at them, like, you know, spend a little bit of money and go to the Congo?”—clearly oblivious to the fact that he himself was essentially one of “them,” giving Jolie more time on his show than he’d given the Congo in the previous two and a half years. (A few months later, Cooper himself went to the Congo for a few days and produced some of the most in-depth coverage seen on U.S. television—an admittedly low bar.)

Of the three broadcast nightlies, ABC World News gave the Congo the most coverage over those five years—with nine stories total, or an average of less than two per year. NBC Nightly News covered the country six times and CBS Evening News brought up the rear with its single segment in five years. The PBS NewsHour did slightly better, with 20 mentions, or an average of four per year (only one concerning gorillas).

Why is the Congo so neglected? Some of the usual explanations—the victims are black and in Africa, the conflict zone is somewhat inaccessible, outlets have sharply cut back their Africa bureaus—are overly simplistic. Those factors certainly don’t help, but Darfur suffers the same strikes against it and yet has spurred far more coverage.

Time’s Robinson posited that "perhaps the attention and outrage directed toward another African tragedy, the genocide in Darfur, have left the world too exhausted to take on Congo’s." (He also suggested that the Congo was "so vast and ungovernable that it has long been perceived as the continent’s ultimate hellhole.") The Tribune’s Salopek likewise mused that perhaps "the long shadow of Darfur" and its much greater activist movement, along with the Congo conflict’s complexity, had obscured the latter from public view.

High-profile activism and celebrity starpower always help win media attention (Extra!, 5–6/07), and the Congo has been sorely lacking on that count until recently—most notably with repeated visits by actor Ben Affleck (who turned in reports for both—2/12/09—and ABC’s Nightline—6/26/08) and activist Eve Ensler’s campaign against rape in the Congo. But the “shadow of Darfur” hardly explains the lack of Congo coverage during the seven years of actual war that preceded the Darfur conflict; if anything, Darfur activism seems to have generated more Congo activism, as groups like the Enough anti-genocide project, founded in 2007 by veteran Darfur activists, combine campaigns for Darfur with campaigns for the Congo.

The complicated nature of the Congo conflict, with multiple countries and even more rebel groups involved, probably does impact media coverage, although complication never stopped media from following a story—the much better-covered conflicts in Darfur, the Balkans (Extra!, 5–6/99), even the Iraq War were more complicated than U.S. media often made them out to be.

What seem to be more important than anything else, though, are U.S. political interests. Darfur fit neatly into the Bush administration’s “war on terror” narrative, with the story (inaccurately) framed as Arabs versus black Africans; China’s increasing business ties to the country also threaten U.S. interests in a region with substantial oil reserves. (See Extra!, 1–2/08.)

U.S. media haven’t always ignored the Congo; it was one of the top foreign affairs stories in the early ’60s (In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, 2002). At the time, the U.S. government was actively working to take down the newly independent country’s leader Patrice Lumumba and pave the way for greater U.S. business participation in the Congo’s economy, and painting Lumumba as a Communist threat helped advance official political goals.

When the 1996 Congo conflict began, U.S. media again proved capable of covering the country. That year, local rebels, Rwanda, Uganda and Angola joined forces to bring down corrupt Congolese president (and erstwhile U.S. ally) Mobutu Sese Seko, with U.S. backing. A study by Alison Holder at the London School of Economics (Stanhope Centre, 2004) found that ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN ran more than 300 stories on the Congo in the roughly nine months of that conflict.

At the time, daily State Department press briefings often highlighted the conflict, drawing particular attention to the plight of Rwandan refugees. Looking at the coverage, Holder found a very strong correlation between amount of press briefing attention and amount of press coverage, with coverage lagging slightly—indicating that the press corps was reacting to official announcements rather than prompting them. Content likewise took the lead from the White House, focusing mostly on Rwandan refugees (concern for whom might have helped Clinton, then in the midst of a re-election campaign, dampen criticism for his feeble response to the Rwandan genocide), not on the conflict itself.

After a brief lull, major conflict resumed in 1998, led largely by Rwanda and Uganda again, but with even more neighboring countries jumping into the fray; the war is sometimes called “Africa’s World War.” In this second conflict, though, with little to gain politically, official announcements drawing attention to the Congo all but disappeared—as did U.S. media coverage.

Rwanda’s crucial role in creating and perpetuating the conflict in the Congo creates one barrier to coverage, as Rwanda is not only a staunch U.S. ally—aid to the country has quadrupled over the last four years (, 1/09)—but also the site of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi minority, which understandably engenders sympathy toward Rwanda’s current Tutsi-led government. Casting Rwanda in the simplistic role of victim/hero—a role reinforced by popular books and movies—has led many U.S. news outlets to downplay the involvement of Rwandan forces and Tutsi members of Congolese rebel groups in massacres of Hutu refugees in the Congo that have themselves been investigated by the U.N. as possible genocide (AP, 11/7/97).

Paying attention to the Congo would also mean reporting on the main factor fueling the conflict: the plunder of the country’s resources, which primarily benefits multinational corporations. The conflict areas of the Congo are rich with minerals like copper, tin, gold, diamonds, cobalt and coltan, a mineral used for cell phones and other common electronic devices. Rebel groups who hold these areas sell off the minerals at cut-rate prices, using the profits to maintain power as big companies look the other way. As happened with conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola, activists are pushing for a mechanism to make corporations verify that they aren’t buying the Congo’s conflict minerals.

Violence in the east escalated in August, with U.N. peacekeepers in the midst of things; last October the U.N. called the situation “catastrophic” (Bloomberg, 10/29/08); and the U.S. helped plan a failed December attack on rebels that ended in hundreds of civilian deaths (New York Times, 2/6/09). Major papers like the Washington Post and New York Times started running a few more articles on the Congo as these developments occurred, including a handful of front-page pieces. A growing grassroots movement, led by Friends of the Congo and others, may also be having some effect on coverage.

Friends of the Congo executive director Maurice Carney told Extra! that he’s seen some good coverage recently, from Democracy Now! to to Dan Rather’s HDNet report on mining (9/23/08)—in other words, mostly from alternative media that are less inclined to take their cues from U.S. officials. 

By Julie Hollar, with research assistance by Cody Trojan. Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!.

© 2009 Extra! Magazine.

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