Media Ignores Bloody Conflict in the Congo

In the last decade, 4 million people in the Congo have been killed in the ongoing conflict and 800,000 more displaced. The death toll is 20 times higher than in the war in Darfur, yet Chicago Tribune foreign reporter Paul Salopek says the Congo much more rarely makes the news.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

This is the story about an African conflict that has seen millions of deaths and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

It's considered by most international agencies as the worst war zone on Earth. You have to go back to Hitler marching through Europe to find a war that caused this many deaths. And it's not Darfur. It's Congo, where four million people have died in the last decade. Sudan is bad, awful, 200,000 people have died in the Darfur conflict.

But Paul Salopek pointed out on the pages of the newspaper the Chicago Tribune the other day that Congo is far worse. So we're going to rip it…

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: …from the headlines. Paul Salopek is on the line from South Africa. Hi, Paul.

Mr. PAUL SALOPEK (Foreign Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): Hello.

PESCA: Paul, what led you to write this article? It wasn't exactly a new story. It was almost a media and compassion story.

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah. Actually, it's a story more about us than about Africa, isn't it? I've covered both conflict zones, both the more famous one in the Darfur region of western Sudan and Congo. In fact, I've covered Congo for many years, and struck largely by the interaction with readers and editors - of course, we get e-mails when we write stories over here from our readers, and there's been a tremendous volume of e-mail traffic of concern, of compassion for the people of Darfur, which is natural. It's a horrible conflict with a tremendous and tragic toll on life. But I was - I've been struck over the years by how Congo seems to have been overshadowed by Darfur, especially since 2003.

PESCA: Even with editors? I mean, I understand why readers, Darfur is almost a household word in America. But don't editors say, give us the root news we need to know, not what we want to know?

Mr. SALOPEK: Well, editors are like any other citizen back home, is they, of course, follow the news much more closely but also see what's floating around in the zeitgeist back in the States: The TV commercials, the celebrity activism, things that we as foreign correspondents aren't exposed to over here. So they tell us what's in the news back home and there's an interaction.

PESCA: And have you ever gotten feedback, like, oh, we've already had one Africa story on the headline this week - on the front page this week?

Mr. SALOPEK: It doesn't boil down to that. It's, you know, I think it's a little more complex than that. We, you know, I think I get from readers, you know, ironically enough, some segment of the readers anyway that here's another Africa sob story, please spare us the, you know, syndrome of compassion fatigue.

PESCA: You had a great statistic in the article about TV coverage. Here, we are talking about newspapers, but TV is even less coverage of both, right?

Mr. SALOPEK: That's correct, yeah.

PESCA: And…

Mr. SALOPEK: The…

PESCA: Go ahead.

Mr. SALOPEK: I was going to say the - yeah, the TV is expensive and these places are difficult to reach and logistically a nightmare for electronic equipments. So, yeah, it's much easier to be a print reporter.

PESCA: And you wrote that the ABC, NBC and CBS evening news had a total of one story about the Congo in the last year.

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah, there's an organization that monitors the three main networks, and there were 16 about Darfur and one about Congo.

PESCA: Well, why? Why do you think Darfur has gotten relatively so much attention? I mean, not as much about attention as, say, celebrity news, but why does it occupy the American consciousness more than Congo does?

Mr. SALOPEK: It boils down, I think, to a narrative. It boils down to storytelling, if you will. Darfur, at least at the beginning, had a very clear storyline and had very well-defined good guys and bad guys - the now notorious Janjaweed, the ethnic Arab militias on horseback, attacking ethnic Arab farmers - excuse me, ethnic African farmers - you had a very clear simple storyline going on in Darfur.

Congo has been always much more complicated with many different parties, not just the national army but at one point during its civil war in the late '90s, there were six different countries with their armies in Congo, and then you have a whole slew of militias and a whole alphabet soup of rebel groups, so it's just much more difficult to comprehend even for us who specialize in these kind of wars.

PESCA: You know, I try to underline the difference in the conflict by talking about four million dead in the Congo, 200,000 dead in Darfur, there was this story about the mind not being able to process numbers that high. You know, for some perspective, just the difference in the death toll of the two conflicts, you could kill everyone in five states and that would be the difference. I mean, it's a grim way to think about it. But imagine the populations of Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, both Dakotas dying tomorrow. That would be the difference in numbers of dead between Congo and Darfur. But do you have a better way to drive the point home just how deadlier the Congo is?

Mr. SALOPEK: You know, that - you put your finger, Mike, on why one reason that it's not resonating is because it not only is that the number horrific and hard to comprehend but it's also - the deaths are largely invisible. They happen in small villages that are scattered across a vast area often of rainforest. So, you know, you literally cannot see it. And what I need to point out that these are not deaths of people getting shot. The vast majority of these deaths occur to war-related disease, war-related hunger, which just isn't as dramatic. It's not as telegenic. It's not as media friendly, if you will, as if you have, you know, what we call bang bang; guns going off and rockets and grenades. So I, you know, I wish I could make it more explicit, more gripping, but the numbers -they slip through your fingers even as you write them. It's just that the scale of a tragedy is incomprehensible.

PESCA: Reading your story, there are a couple of things that jumped out. I totally buy your main point, but the things I was thinking of is why is it fair to say that it's either Congo or Darfur? I'm sure you'd say it wouldn't be, but, you know, as the American obsession, the fault that we are focused on Darfur, the fault that we're focused on Jamie Lynn Spears or Stacy Peterson or I'll indict my own passion, the NFL, I mean, that's we're focused on instead of Congo, isn't it?

Mr. SALOPEK: I agree with you. The - as an Africa correspondent, however, I can only feed you with what I'm seeing over here on this continent, and that is a continent that is emerging from many decades of turmoil and actually is quieter now than it was five years ago when you had Sierra Leone, Liberia, you know, Angola winding down its - but there are a couple of big wars now instead of many small ones. And I think the American public, which is overwhelmed by a white noise of input, a white noise of information, whether it's football scores or Britney Spears or what's going on in the southern provinces of Afghanistan, can only, you know, it's a - we're a hardworking public. People work jobs sometimes, two jobs, they've got kids to raise, there's only so much time we can devote to thinking about the larger world, the large university under the owner horizons.

PESCA: Paul Salopek, foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Thank you for trying to focus also on Congo.

Mr. SALOPEK: Thank you very much.

PESCA: Take care, Paul.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: We should make sure we link to Paul's article on our blog later today for people who want to visit online and read a little more into that.

PESCA: It's a really good read.

STEWART: Yeah.

PESCA: Lots of good facts, not just - it's not an opinion article. It's a real well-reported article.

STEWART: Coming up on our show today, NPR's Margot Adler will join us to talk about the winter solstice, it's today. We should link it to some of today's Christmas tradition. Margot has been all things pagan.

PESCA: Margot is a pagan. She's a proud pagan. And we're also going to preview some of the new movies that are opening today. There's "Charlie Wilson's War."

STEWART: Not that interested.

PESCA: Okay, "Walk Hard."

STEWART: Very interested.

PESCA: And the big one, the one that Oscar is smiling upon, "National Treasure: Book of Secrets."

STEWART: By that, you mean Oscar who works downstairs at Le Mirage.

PESCA: Yeah, the Oscar frenzy. It's like weird Nick Cage obsession. It's a little freaky.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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