WORLDVIEWS

Sticking With a Story After the Media Forget

Do you want know what happens to news reports in parts of the world after they seemingly drop from the front page? Do you get frustrated by constant coverage of certain stories at the expense of others? Do you think that the US media and the US foreign policy establishment should pay some attention to crises regardless of whether they influence our national interests or national security?

Well, I do. If you do, too, follow the Forgotten Stories Foreign Policy Initiative: http://www.facebook.com/#!/forgottenstories.

The initiative was started recently out of frustration that US media and US foreign policy can often seem to ignore, misconstrue and devote intermittent attention to international crises. When a regime is overthrown, when a coup happens or when mass killings are committed, articles and video clips are everywhere. At times they can even be hard to escape.

But after months go by and a situation is no longer boiling over, it disappears from newspapers altogether and is no longer featured on cable news or media Web sites, where room must be made for new disasters and the latest helicopter reporting. It appears that pundits, journalists, legislators and foreign policy architects simply forget about an event all at once. And sometimes, readers themselves forget about stories once a crisis has been stabilized but a situation is far from normal.

Recent coverage of the Arab Spring proves a correlation between media coverage, international pressure and change. If the media hadn’t been watching, the public would not have been either, and politicians may not have paid attention as well. In Arab Spring revolts, Western pressure was certainly not the impetus, but it is arguable that it was a variable influencing the uprisings. The popular masses caused the change that has characterized the Arab Spring, but media coverage around the world stood in solidarity with the Arabs’ struggles.

Yet if no one is watching in the media, chances are no one will do anything about a crisis or a serious problem. In modern history, far too many tragedies could have been mitigated if they had received significant media attention. Slow-burning crises in Cambodia and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are only the most glaring examples in the last decade or so.

In the case of Cambodia, the West was mesmerized when the news reported that the US war in Vietnam and its spillover into Cambodia had spurred the large-scale massacre of the Khmer Rouge regime. Years later, attention waned after Vietnam invaded the country to quell the violence.

If the West had continued to watch the goings-on in Cambodia, however, it would have witnessed a regime that – while not as murderous as its predecessor – squandered aid money, robbed land from its peasant population, built a sham of a justice system and worked only to maintain its own power.

The problems in the country still continue. Not only is Cambodia facing its largest floods in history, setting back progress in health and education, but the government is also meddling in Cambodians’ dwindling grasps at justice. Recently, a German judge for the UN-led tribunal resigned over public statements made by government leaders saying that certain former Khmer officials should not be investigated. The tribunal may be the last chance for Cambodia to bring those responsible for the atrocities of the Khmer regime – the deaths of at least 1.5 million people – to court. [For more reading on the tribunal, go to http://passblue.com/2011/10/21/saving-the-troubled-khmer-rouge-tribunal/]

A peacekeeping soldier in the Congo mission, which has been criticized for not preventing mass attacks on villagers in the eastern part of the country. CODJO HOUEGNIGLO/UN PHOTO

Officials from the United Nations Department of Legal Affairs have condemned government intervention in Cambodia, but UN member countries have been mostly silent. The UN is only as strong as its members, but they are compelled to action when their interests are at stake or when their constituencies vocalize concern. Constituencies are less likely to speak up about an issue if most of the major media aren’t discussing it.

The Congo is another country neglected if not sporadically covered by the press and seem to be given short shrift by the US government. As a result of refugees fleeing from the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s, Congo became home to numerous armed groups launching attacks within Congo and in neighboring countries, such as Uganda. This catastrophe has been called “Africa’s first world war,” a phenomenon that many in the West ignored.

In the last year, the West has been focusing on the mass rapes and sexual assaults that have been occurring in the Congo and demanding action, but efforts appear to be still fleeting. Many pundits, news people and politicians condemned the UN Peacekeeping Mission there for allowing the crimes to happen, ignoring the fact that member countries of the UN and not the UN itself were to blame for the mission’s inability to respond and react comprehensively.

Unfortunately, a year after major coverage of Congolese gang rapes and assaults, barely anyone seems to notice that one leader allegedly behind the attacks, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, a leader of the Mai Mai militia, is campaigning for office in the country’s elections this month. Perhaps everyone is too focused on the Middle East and North Africa to speak up.

This is where the Forgotten Stories Foreign Policy Initiative is stepping in. Through social media outlets, Forgotten Stories is focusing attention on international crises that fall between the cracks of media outlets. The forgotten situations will be publicized and delved into further through the use of social media. The beauty of social media is that it allows caring individuals to be ever more mindful and less dependent on mainstream media to follow the stories that others have dropped.

So far, Forgotten Stories has focused on Cambodia and Congo. If you care about these hot spots, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you know of other Forgotten Stories, post those on our page to let us all know.

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