WASHINGTON, D.C. - Urgent stories of humanitarian crises that claimed or threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and other war-torn regions around the world were pushed off the United States international news agenda in 2002 by the U.S.-led "war on terrorism," according to a year-end report by the international medical aid group, Doctors Without Borders.
Naming the 'Top Ten Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories of 2002,' the group--which is also known by its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)--said the three major U.S. television network news programs devoted more airtime (26 minutes) to the activities of British royalty during the first 10 months of the year than to eight of the top 10 crises combined (25 minutes).
The events almost entirely ignored by the networks included a catastrophic man-made famine that claimed thousands of lives in war-torn but oil-rich Angola, ongoing civil wars in Liberia, Sudan, and Somalia, and a dramatic intensification of civil war in Colombia, the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid and training.
"These stories must be told," said Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of MSF-USA. "People throughout the United States have told us how hungry they are for substantive, in-depth coverage of international issues," de Torrente continued, "unfortunately, apart from a handful of dedicated journalists, the U.S. media's increasingly narrow focus leaves many Americans woefully under-informed. This is happening when understanding and addressing global issues is perhaps more important than ever."
U.S. media coverage of Africa has long attracted criticism for failing to look behind stereotypes and beyond familiar story lines, such as tribal conflict and humanitarian rescue missions. But, given the intense media focus on Washington's evolving "war on terrorism" over the past year, even those kinds of stories have had a difficult time getting on editorial agendas.
Five of the 10 most underreported humanitarian stories identified by MSF are based in Africa. They include findings of a May survey at MSF's feeding center in Malange, Angola, where over half of local pregnant women had lost a child to hunger or disease in the previous four months. The women were among hundreds of thousands of Angola's population who had survived a brutal 27-year war.
The group similarly deplored the lack of media coverage to the continuing effects of the civil war and foreign intervention in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. While foreign armies have largely withdrawn, the ceasefire line remains fragile, local children lack access to healthcare, and disease and malnutrition are rampant. Some 2.6 million people have been displaced across the country.
The displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians due to fighting in Liberia and Sudan over the past year, and continuing warfare and factional fighting in Somalia, have also received little notice in the U.S. media, even though, in Sudan's case, U.S.-led diplomatic initiatives made major progress in bringing the country's 20-year-old civil war to an end, according to MSF.
Other civil conflicts which, according to MSF, went undercovered in 2002, include an increase in violence in Colombia following the collapse of peace negotiations between the government and the largest guerrilla group last February. Escalating violence in parts of the countryside have resulted in a breakdown of healthcare and the resurgence of diseases like measles and malaria.
Ongoing violence in Chechnya (news - web sites) during the year also continued to threaten the safety of local civilians and impede the delivery of humanitarian aid to those most in need, while the lack of access to desperately needed food supplies in parts of North Korea (news - web sites) has harmed particularly vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly and led to risky escapes into China where Korean exiles are treated like illegal migrants who may be repatriated if they are caught.
While these humanitarian crises are focused on specific countries, two other underreported news stories--the ongoing failure of the world's wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies to provide affordable, life-saving drugs to low-income populations, and the growing disregard by both terrorist groups and nations fighting terrorism for international humanitarian law that is designed to protect non-combatants from violence--deserve far more attention, according to MSF.