The conflict in Darfur is a news story that has been widely and emotively covered by western media but has attracted relatively little coverage within the Arab media.
The Listening Post’s Salah Khadr finds out why.
There are many similarities between the violence in Iraq and Darfur from the estimate of the number of civilians killed to paramilitaries operating closely linked to the government forces, to victims who are targeted for membership of an ethnic group.
However international media coverage generally reports one as a civil war or cycle of insurgency and the other as a genocide.
More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict in Darfur, with millions more turned into refugees and the situation becoming a picture of “hell on earth” according to the UN.
Sudan’s population is 40 per cent Arab and Arabs are at the heart of the conflict, but for many in the Arab world, the humanitarian catastrophe may as well not exist.
The reason being the Arab media have largely ignored it.
Lawrence Pintak, a journalist and Arab media expert, says the problem with Darfur when it comes to the Arab media is that it does not fit the template of Arabs being the victims and other people the aggressors.
“Arabs here are good guys and bad guys,” he says.
‘State of denial’
“I think we are in a state of denial,” Jehad Khazen, a former editor of the al-Hayat newspaper, says.
“People say ‘the Arabs or Muslims – cannot do this – it did not happen’ – but they did do this and it did happen – and they have to reconcile themselves to the fact.”
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Just because the Arab media does not cover a lot of what happens in the Darfur crisis does not mean that Arab public opinion is not interested says Nadim Hasbani, an Arab media analyst from the International Crisis Group.
“A Zogby poll around March or April in 2007 showed there is a real eagerness in Arab public opinion to read more and learn more about what is happening in Darfur. But this is not reflected in the Arab media.”
It could be argued that geography plays a role in the limited coverage given the conflict is in Africa, not the Middle East.
But whilst Darfur largely remains a non-event on the Arab media scene, European and North American media travel from greater distances to cover this story.
“There is always going to be some sort of reluctance to demonise their own, the Arabs as they will see themselves,” Opheera McDoom, Reuters correspondent in Darfur, says.
“But I think while there has been coverage in the Arab media, there has been a reluctance in the Arab media to go to Darfur and check things out for themselves.
“I see a lot more western media going to Darfur and spending weeks in Darfur than I do Arab media and that is where you see the difference. You will get a much more in-depth coverage and a lot more interesting coverage if you actually go to Darfur, and that is where the Arab media has fallen down.”
However, some Arab media analysts say that the implied rationale from the American media in particular is that the story in Darfur is Arabs killing Africans because they do not know anything other than violence.
“That’s what the audience is left to conclude,” says Mahmood Mahdani of Columbia University.
“So that’s of course not acceptable if you are part of the Arab media. You can immediately sense that you are being caricatured and demonised at the same time.”
It is questionable, however, if such suspicions over the motivation and vigour of US media coverage account for the strategy of limited coverage from many Arab media outlets.
|Arab media’s coverage of Darfur is often more analysis than reporting [EPA]|
“What is most striking to me is that the media coverage has a single focus and that’s a focus on atrocities, on atrocity stories, there’s no attempt to place them in context,” Mahdani says.
“There’s no attempt to explain, to locate it historically, to show that there’s any change happening.
“I think it is about linking Darfur with the larger war on terror by portraying and framing the perpetrators of violence in Darfur as Arabs.”
The 22 Arab states all have a distinctive media output and often it is not so much a question of following an agenda but deciding which agenda to follow.
“It is not one agenda – every Arab government has a different agenda from the other – Egypt is more interested in Darfur as Sudan is next door and doesn’t want a spill over,” Khazen says.
“But a country a like the UAE or Oman – find they are not directly involved and they can’t influence events – so you find that the coverage is much more limited there.”
Covering Darfur is also hindered by the government of Sudan who have imposed strict access criteria and will often not issue visas or take journalists to government-controlled areas.
“They [the government] know that if more information comes out there will be added pressure on the Sudanese government,” Hasbani says.
“It’s not easy to cover Darfur – its not easy for Western Journalists and its not easy for Arab journalists,” Lawrence Pintak says.
“I talked to an Al Jazeera correspondent who was based in Khartoum a while back – and he said to go and cover Darfur – you have to go to Khartoum – then to Nairobi – to West Africa up to Cameroon, across from Cameroon to Chad and then in through the back door to the refugee camps.
“If you don’t do that then you are on a guided tour and you may as well go to Disneyland.”
The result of these restrictions has been a move toward more analytical coverage and away from hard reporting.
“What’s happened in Arab media is that we have so much coverage of the political issues related to Darfur like – what is the UK, France, US, UN reaction to Darfur – but what we really need actually is not the political coverage, but the coverage from the ground,” Hasbani says.
“What are the facts, what are the stories, where are the images of the refugees of the people being killed? These are images we don’t have but are the images we need – its not about the political process.”
A Listening Post special on the media coverage of Darfur can be seen on Al Jazeera from Friday July 12 at the following times GMT: