Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Perspective: Coverage of Ukraine Revolution Versus Nigeria's Boko Haram

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau
Boko Haram's Top Maniac:
Abubakar Shekau (video still)
February 26, 2014 - Mediaite's Noah Rothman seems to think that only he has access to news out of Africa. Rothman complains that the latest atrocity by Boko Haram, a mass murder of dozens of students at the Federal Government College in Yobe, Nigeria on February 24 has received less attention than it deserves and that few people are even aware of it. Specifically, Rothman complains that it got less coverage than it should have because, he seems to imply, of some disproportionate attention given to the months-long violent protests in Ukraine.

Contrary to Rothman's assertion, millions of us have heard of the most recent attack by Boko Haram on a boys' boarding school. The recent Boko Haram slaughter did receive -- and is still getting -- big coverage. (Don't take my word for it; do your own Google search for "boko haram attack.")

The headline for Rothman's post was "The Horrific Massacre of School Children by Islamic Radicals You’ve Heard Nothing About." Rothman is obviously oblivious to the fact that the story is getting big coverage worldwide and is a hot topic on Twitter today. The irony here is that unless Rothman broke the story himself (he didn't), he undoubtedly became aware of the story after millions of other people did, and that he did so by reading about it in some of the very media that he says have not covered it well enough. The media have breathlessly updated their reports as the official body count, initially reported as 29, has risen to at least 59 and seems likely to go still higher.

UPDATE (28 Feb 2014):
While it's true that the ongoing demonstration in Ukraine got major coverage, it's also true that Ukraine's anti-Russia, pro-EU demonstrations began months before Boko Haram's mayhem on Monday of this week. Here's where the sense of perspective by Mediaite's Rothman comes into play. The Nigeria story is getting worldwide press coverage. But compared to the events in Ukraine, which ended days ago as a full-blown coup that toppled a government, sent its former leader running from his own charges of mass murder, embarrassed Vladimir Putin and now gives inspiration to anti-government demonstrators in Venezuela, the Boko Haram story seems puny.

Boko Haram history of violence is several years old, with a string of previous bloody atrocities along the way. Those incidents have received worldwide press coverage. The most recent Boko Haram outrage was a single event that began and ended quickly, whereas the Ukraine demonstrations went on for months, building up steam and producing more drama daily. There is no mystery as to why the Ukraine story got more coverage.

I don't want to downplay the significance of Boko Haram's terror. Boko Haram is a serious problem and each of the murders they commit is horrible. The fact is, however, that they are a regional problem (for now) with no significant repercussions of great scale anywhere else in the world (at present). This fact didn't stop Rothman from posting an article late in the afternoon of February 25th in which he essentially said that the most recent act of mass murder by Boko Haram, which began on February 24th, was under-reported because of some bias on the part of the media.

As far as I can tell, the only bias was one in favor of the story of Ukraine, which is far more important globally and historically than the story of Boko Haram. At least, it is at present. Rothman's error is that he downplays -- or misunderstands -- the significance of Ukraine's government changing people's revolution and the impact it has on the Great Game between Russia and the alliance of the U.S. and E.U. Rothman asks,

"Perhaps there is a geographical bias?" Of course there is: Ukraine is on the cusp of Russia and the European Union. Russia's history with Ukraine and the strategically important Crimean Penninsula, and Ukraine's proximity and desire to join the E.U., are critical factors. If Rothman looked at a map of the region and had any understanding of the history of Ukraine and the Crimea, he would not have asked about "geographical bias." And now, post-revolution, the tensions in Ukraine remain. There are new worries of separatism, and violent clashes continue.

Boko Haram may be regionally disruptive, but it does not have the potential for causing a war between Russia and the U.S. No, that's not hyperbole: A headline today in The Telegraph (UK): "Ukraine revolution: 150,000 Russian troops on alert as US warns Putin." This is frightening stuff. "The US warned Moscow to be 'very careful' in its judgements after Vladimir Putin put armed forces in western Russia on alert, as tensions mounted in the pro-Russian Crimea over the overthrow of Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych by pro-European protesters," reports The Telegraph. "Amid fears the country could fragment in the struggle between its pro-Russian and pro-European regions, Mr Putin flexed his military muscle by ordering war games involving 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border."

Rothman wrote his piece prior to The Telegraph article, but anyone with a basic understanding of 20th Century history could have seen this coming. "John Kerry, the US secretary of state, urged the Kremlin to "keep its word" over the unity of Ukraine, insisting the US and Russia did not need to get into an 'old cold war confrontation' over the country. NATO also turned up the pressure on Russia, saying it would continue to support 'Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development and the principle of the inviolability of frontiers'."

Nigeria? Boko Haram? Russia flexing its muscle in the Crimean tinderbox? Some perspective is in order, Mr. Rothman, please.

The Ukraine "demonstrations" turned into a full-blown coup, dramatically changing the world stage, further complicating US-Russia-EU relations, and so on. The Boko Haram attack, while horrific, will not change the scenery of international politics. Given that, the larger coverage of a coup in Ukraine was not inappropriate. The significance of the Ukraine revolution dwarfs the significance of a tragic -- albeit local -- mass murders. There is, of course, a bigger picture.

The long-term global threat from Boko Haram must be taken seriously. "As the world globalizes, jihadist factions such as Boko Haram align in-kind and gain both the intelligence and the capacity to strike in increasingly urban centers and beyond national borders," notes the Wall Street Journal. "We must make no mistake: This destabilizing network is a global problem, larger in scope and indeed in mission than the international community may presume. It is not just going to go away."

There is another irony in all of this. Rothman says Boko Haram deserves more press coverage. There is an argument to be made for that. But that's his own Western bias coming into play. Those who have to live with - or die with - the Boko Haram threat don't all agree with Rothman. In fact, many in Nigeria feel that Boko Haram should get less press coverage. Some feel that heavy news coverage of Boko Haram does more harm than good.

Beslan school siege, September 2004
Photograph: S Dal/Reuters
Rothman's article starts off his article by reminding us of the September 1, 2004 attack on school children by Chechen militants in Beslan, southern Russia. "Hundreds died [more than 330] in the standoff, including 186 children, at the hands of Islamic radicals and Russian paramilitary forces," wrote Rothman.

"The global coverage of the Beslan siege and its bloody aftermath was perfectly appropriate," Rothman wrote, saying that the Beslan massacre "deserved every ounce of ink that was devoted to informing the public about it." Fine so far, then he loses his grip: "But the coverage of that atrocity makes the lack of coverage of a similarly horrific event which occurred in Western Africa on Monday night that much more vexing."

"Lack of coverage?" What's he talking about? Is Rothman really unaware of the huge coverage being given to Monday's Boko Haram attack? It's huge. "Similary horrific?" About five times as many died in Beslan than on Monday at the Nigerian boys school. About 1,000 people were held hostage for days in Beslan, whereas the Boko Haram attack was a quick hit-and-run. The Beslan school massacre, by the way, happened roughly five years before Boko Haram began its campaign of terror in 2009-2010.

Rothman compares the 2004 Chechen terror attack on Russians, in which hundreds died, to this Monday's attack on Nigerian school boys by Boko Haram, which killed less than 100, and wonders why the more deadly attack got more coverage. Rothman seems to not have considered these possible reasons: Beslan was a far more deadly attack. Such attacks are extremely rare in Russia, and are sadly not uncommon in Nigeria (or much of Africa). Russia had engaged in major military operations in Chechnya, whereas Nigeria has not mounted a major military effort against Boko Haram. Remember, too, that Boko Haram has committed so many terror strikes since 2009 - which was not their worst to date - that another like Monday's attack on the boys' school becomes "just another one" by the group. Think of it this way: Gang shootings are so common in some American cities that they don't all get reported, and most of those that do don't get on the front page.

Rothman wrote that "Boko Haram" "literally" means "Western education is sinful" or "forbidden," but that's not quite accurate. "This name is often rendered in English [as] 'Western education is forbidden.' That translation sacrifices some potential nuance and depth," wrote Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog. "There is no definitive way to translate either the unofficial Hausa name or the official Arabic name." Rothman swallowed and regurgitated what a lot of mainstream media have said "Boko Harem" means. Boko Haram is not even the group's official name: It is "Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad."

Monday's boarding school slaughter was "not the first time that Islamic militants in Eastern Nigeria carried out an atrocity against children," wrote Rothman. "In September [2013], Islamic insurgents killed 40 students attending the College of Agriculture in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state."

"Aside from scant reports in a handful of press outlets, these and other horrific attacks have inspired little in the way of breathless media coverage in the West," Rothman said. "The lack of coverage of this event, as opposed to a similar event in Southern Russia [Beslan], has inspired some to ask a familiar question: why do some horrific acts of violence merit coverage in the West and others do not?" As I noted earlier, the Beslan school attack was far more deadly than Monday's Boko Haram school attack, therefore more sensational, and of a type that is rare in Russia. In terms of scope alone, it deserved more coverage: It was a bigger crime.

Another factor: Armed troops battled the Chechen attackers in Beslan. There was no fight when Boko Haram struck the Nigerian boarding school, committed their murders, and fled. Rothman wrote that "Media critics were moved last week to ask why violent demonstrations in Ukraine were getting so much attention while similarly violent anti-government protests in comparatively nearby Venezuela were not. There may not be a good reason." There are several good reasons, as I have noted above.

"Perhaps there is a geographical bias?" wonders Rothman. "Perhaps American audiences are more interested in news from Eastern Europe and Southern Russia than South America and Africa because more Americans can relate to European ethnic heritage." Rothman parroted a popular myth, and ignores the current heavy coverage by U.S. media of the violent demonstrations in Venezuela and of the ongoing drug war in Mexico. He also seems to have forgotten the heavy coverage given by U.S. media to the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya last September by Islamist terror group al-Shabab.

"Perhaps news outlets simply do not have the resources to cover events in regions of the world that do not command the geopolitical influence that Russia does," Rothman wondered. That ignores logistics, which apply to journalism just as they do to any other industry. You put your resources where they are most needed and most cost effective. Think about it: Would it make sense for CBS, ABC, FOX, and all the other major news outlets to have full news gathering centers in every backwater county, town and village in the U.S.? Of course not, and the same logic applies globally. Why should American media, then, place the resources equally in some small village in Africa as they do in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Johannesburg, London or other places of "geopolitical influence?"

"There may not be a good answer," Rothman lamented, "but the question deserves to be asked." Sure, ask away. But it's a naive question for a journalist to ask and there are plenty of good answers.

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