News Media and African Genocide
Summary and Keywords
Today, genocides and other episodes of mass violence are, under specific circumstances, subject to extensive media reporting. A case in point is the mass violence in Darfur, unfolding during the first decades of the 21st century and categorized as genocide by many, including the International Criminal Court. Media reporting about Darfur shows noteworthy patterns. They are revealed by a study supported by the National Science Foundation, involving content analysis of 3,387 reports and opinion pieces published in prominent newspapers of eight countries in the Global North, accompanied by expert interviews, and a doctoral dissertation on the journalistic field in Africa and its reporting on Darfur. First, today’s media reporting replaces denial with acknowledgment. Second, it frames the violence most often as criminal, and frequently as genocidal, even though humanitarian emergency and armed conflict frames also fare prominently. Third, throughout the history of reporting, Africa correspondents, central actors in the journalistic field, adapt to opportunities and external pressures from surrounding social fields. Economic forces (media markets) and politics affect the frequency of reporting. The criminal justice-oriented human rights field, the humanitarian field, and the diplomatic field influence the frames through which the violence is interpreted. Fourth, the criminal justice-oriented human rights field is especially effective in coloring reports, despite substantial barriers between criminal courts and the journalistic field. Fifth, reporting in all countries is affected by interventions by international institutions, including the UN Security Council, the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC’s decision to charge Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, for example, intensified reporting in all countries. Sixth, the receptivity to the criminal justice frame varies by country. Seventh, in addition to cross-country similarities and differences within the Global North, a comparison of journalistic fields in the Global North with those in Africa shows distinct patterns, but also astonishing similarities between Global North and African reporting on Darfur.
News Media and African Genocide: Toward a Global North-African Comparison
Analyses of media representations of mass violence in Darfur in the first decade of the 21st century, categorized as genocide by many, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), display distinct patterns across time and space. We here explore how Africa correspondents, central actors in the journalistic field, adapt to opportunities and external pressures from surrounding social fields and to the constraints they face. The first section focuses on journalists and news media from the Global North, the frequency of reporting over time and across countries, and the dominant frames through which the mass violence is interpreted. The second section turns the lens to African journalists. Comparisons reveal astonishing similarities, but also noticeable contrasts. Throughout, we engage Bourdieuian thoughts on the journalistic field and use Bourdieu’s central concepts. A social field then is oriented toward a specialized type of activity, for example the production and dissemination of news. It consists of a set of positions linked together through power relations. Actors within such fields are carriers of a habitus, a set of relatively fixed dispositions, including attitudes and modes of thought, that reflect their trajectories and their position within the field. While journalists, guided by the rules of the journalistic game, are relatively autonomous, surrounding fields must be considered if we want to make sense of variations in reporting about mass violence in Darfur or elsewhere (Benson, 1998, 2006; Bourdieu, 1998). The political field and the economic field fare prominently. Journalists have to fight to maintain their autonomy when their publishing houses are concerned with subscription rates and advertisers, or when journalists seek not to offend political informants (Revers, 2014). In the opposite direction, scholars have diagnosed a mediatization of politics (Mazzoleni & Schulz, 1999; Strömbeck & Esser, 2014). In situations of humanitarian crises, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the fields with which they are associated have also been seen as influencing media depictions (Powers, 2015). Recognizing that the journalistic field and its relationship to surrounding fields takes different shapes in different countries, we finally contribute to recent comparative analyses of journalism (e.g., Benson, 2013).
Global North Media and the Reporting about Darfur
Western media reporting on mass violence in Darfur has recently been examined in a comprehensive study that resulted in the Darfur media data set. This data set is based on content analysis of 3,387 articles published in leading newspapers of eight Western countries.1 It tells us when newspapers began reporting about Darfur and how the number of reports, the depiction of suffering, and the framing of violence changed over time. The data also gauge the effect of interventions by actors from surrounding social fields, including media markets; economic dependency on advertisers and subscribers; agendas of political actors who impede journalism or who validate journalistic attention to the issue; and information dependency on societal sectors that include the judicial, humanitarian, and diplomatic fields. Interviews conducted in the eight countries with Africa correspondents, NGO specialists from the humanitarian aid, human rights, and diplomacy fields, show substantial distinctions and help interpret the statistical patterns.
Intensity of Reporting: The Journalistic vis-à-vis the Political Field and Media Markets
How much attention did media pay to the mass violence in Darfur, and how did the intensity of reporting change over time? Figure 1 depicts changes in the number of media reports from each country. The numbers here reflect the entire population of articles about Darfur that a research team at the University of Minnesota identified in 14 newspapers and from which the sample of 3,387 articles was drawn for detailed analysis. It is instructive to follow these lines year by year.
Note first that shifts in the intensity of reporting developed in almost perfect unison. Within the same year, a peak in the number of articles in one country is mirrored in the other countries. The massive volume of reporting in 2004 and 2007 stands out. Second, the intensity of reporting differs across countries. The frequencies of reports in Germany and the United States exceeds by far those in the other six countries. For the United States, this is consistent with a massive civil society movement around the Darfur issue, followed by particularly outspoken engagement of government actors. For Germany, the higher level of reporting corresponds with that country’s articulation of a special historical responsibility. It is also consistent with the generally greater engagement with genocide in German political discourse, as diagnosed by K. Smith (2010) in her comparative analysis of large European countries. Frequency of reporting in U.S. and German newspapers is followed by papers in the United Kingdom and France, the former colonial powers in Sudan and neighboring Chad, respectively.
Cycles of Reporting and Their Conditions
Beyond the overall volume of reporting, media coverage of Darfur across time periods unfolds in cycles. Virtually no reports appeared in 2003. Yet, the first wave of massive killings and displacements unfolded between April and September of that year, before it subsided following a temporary cease-fire. This journalistic silence, paralleling disregard or denial in other fields, is certainly not the first case in which media have responded late to mass violence on the African continent.
The second massive wave of killings took place between December 2003 and April 2004, when a second cease-fire took effect. At this point media did begin to take notice, and later in 2004, the intensity of reporting reached high levels. The second wave of violence differed little from the first and thus might have been accompanied by similar media apathy. But this time the violence had provoked highly visible civil society and political responses. As early as December 2003, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s special envoy, Tom Eric Vraalsen, reported that the government of Sudan was denying humanitarian access to Darfur. In January 2004, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) issued a “genocide alert” for Darfur. In February, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by scholar-activist Eric Reeves on the violence in Darfur, and one month later the New York Times followed, with an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof. Only one month after the second, much noted op-ed, Kofi Annan delivered his famous speech before the UN General Assembly on the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. He called for decisive action in ongoing conflicts. By late summer 2004, the George W. Bush administration began using the term genocide, and in September 2004, the UN Security Council charged the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (ICID) to investigate and report on the violence.
Some journalist-interviewees addressed factors that motivated their first reporting about Darfur in early 2004. Their statements reveal that the political field generally, and the United Nations specifically, as well as human rights NGOs, played a central role in sparking journalistic engagement. A distinguished Africa correspondent recalled, “When first messages about a new war in Sudan appeared in 2003, I initially did not take that so seriously. But when the commemorative events unfolded on the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide [April 2004], and Kofi Annan and others said, ‘We will no longer tolerate this,’ then I also decided to take this conflict seriously and I traveled there” (Journalist interview conducted by Savelsberg in Germany, authors’ translation).
Another journalist told about his work on the North-South conflict in Sudan and the relief he and his colleagues had felt when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005. His attention was thus attuned to Sudanese issues. And yet, it took an unusual series of events for him to begin his field trips to (and reporting from) Darfur and refugee camps in neighboring Chad. Tracing the takeoff of reporting in this journalist’s paper is instructive: “We then regularly received messages from human rights organizations informing us of massacres and displacements in West Sudan. We could not really make sense of that, as we are not Sudan specialists. They initially even [mistakenly] reported that this was a conflict between Christians and Muslims etc.—until we received detailed studies from Human Rights Watch and Global Witness that described this as a war of expulsion” (authors’ translation).
None of the early articles in this journalist’s paper appeared in its most visible places, but this soon changed when, on April 23, 2004, the Darfur conflict actually advanced to the paper’s front page. It featured an article by the interviewee entitled “Alarming Report of the United Nations: Mass Murder and Atrocities in Sudan” (593 words; Michael Bitala and Stefan Kornelius in Süddeutsche Zeitung, April 23, 2004, p. 1). The article was accompanied by an opinion piece on page 4 (225 words) and an “external report” on page 2 (963 words), the latter written by a former minister of justice who was then a UN special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan. The lead article referred to a not-yet-published report by the UN high commissioner for human rights: “The report charges the Government of Sudan and a closely allied militia with war crimes. There is said to be a ‘domination of terror’ in the crisis region of Darfur, with ethnically motivated mass murders, rapes, and evictions. The regime in Khartoum thus far refuses to allow the UN any access to the region” (authors’ translation).
Communication between the paper’s foreign editor and a high-ranking politician with access to a repressed UN report had thus opened the path for front-page reporting. The interviewee received permission to travel to Chad to investigate, and his contributions (and those of others) soon appeared in rapid succession: May 27 (article and editorial), May 28, May 29 (news agency), June 1, June 3, June 5, June 14 (article and editorial), and June 19. Such intensification of reporting was part of what became a broad journalistic interest in Darfur. The flood of reporting crested in 2004 (Figure 1). This story of one paper’s entry into reporting about Darfur illustrates how communication between a paper’s leadership and a high-ranking and respected politician helped bring Darfur to the front page and assure the paper’s correspondent a travel-permit into the crisis region. There is every reason to believe that this paper’s story is not unique.
The 2004 peak of reporting was followed by a modest but noticeable drop in 2005 in all eight countries. This decline, however, did not reflect a lack of events to report on. The ICID issued its report in January. In May, the UN Security Council (UNSC) referred the case to the ICC. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Save Darfur coalition gathered steam. The violence continued in Darfur, albeit at a level well below the peaks of mid-2003 and early 2004. An epidemiological study found “The number of internally displaced persons remained constant, but the number of affected residents tripled; the increase in humanitarian aid was similar to the increase in total number of people affected, resulting in a constant ratio of 40 humanitarian aid workers to 100,000 people affected” (Degomme & Guha-Sapir, 2010, p. 296).
After 2005, reporting increased again, reaching a second peak in 2006, in six of the eight countries. What may have motivated this renewed intensification in reporting about Darfur? Again, public health researchers inform us that, between the middle of 2006 and late 2007, “because of insecurity, the number of internally displaced people increased by about 40% (from 1,717,092 to 2,387,594)” (Degomme & Guha-Sapir, 2010, p. 296). Insecurity intensified, especially in May 2006, when the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed but failed to silence the arms. In fact, this setback was followed by a new offensive by the Sudanese military in August 2006. Although events on the ground did not initially spark media attention, this time they were accompanied by political and civil society actions, especially in the US.
In October 2006, President Bush signed into law the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act (DPAA; House Resolution 3127/Senate Bill 1462), confirming the administration’s position that the violence in Darfur constituted genocide. It also instructed the government to assist the ICC in its pursuit of responsible actors—despite the continued refusal by the United States to ratify the Rome Statute (on which the ICC is based). This signing into law was preceded by a massive Save Darfur demonstration in Washington in April 2006. While domestic events may have contributed to an increasing volume of American media reports, it is unlikely that they had an equal impact in raising the number of media reports in the other countries. Instead, global action is more likely to have intensified attention across countries. Such action included the February 2007 application for and the April issuing of an arrest warrant against Ahmed Harun (a deputy minister for the interior) and Ali Kushayb (a Janjawiid militia leader) at the ICC, and passage in July 2007 of UNSC Resolution 1769, authorizing the establishment of UN African Union Mission (UNAMID), the UN-AU hybrid peacekeeping mission for Darfur. The cross-national increase in media attention of 2006 was in line with arguments by Dayan and Katz (1992), who observed that specific moments of public intervention cause a shift from the indicative to the subjunctive mode of culture; questions of “is” and “ought” come on the agenda and create heightened attention (see also Alexander & Jacobs, 1998).
Figure 1 shows further that the second peak in the intensity of reporting, registered in 2007, was followed by a massive and steady decline in each of the subsequent three years. By 2010, the number of reports was barely above the minimal level last seen in 2003. This decline occurred despite continued suffering in Darfur. In fact, from October 2007 through December 2008, the beginning of the steep decline in reporting, the “number of internally displaced people” continued to increase (Degomme & Guha-Sapir, 2010, p. 296). Even international responses could not prevent the decline, contrary to Dayan and Katz (1992). They included the ICC’s unprecedented steps in 2008 and 2009, including the issuing of an arrest warrant against Omar al-Bashir, the sitting president of Sudan, charging war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In short, the suffering on the ground and ICC actions were substantial. And yet, reporting declined precipitously.
Explanations for Declining Media Interests from Interviews and Journalistic Reports
Interviews suggest several potential explanations for the decline in reporting after 2007. Respondents pointed at constraints imposed on journalism by both the economic and political fields. One crucial part of journalism’s political environment, an issue throughout the Darfur conflict but intensifying over time, was the government of Sudan. To be sure, the government of Sudan set up hurdles from the beginning. A German Africa correspondent spoke about difficulties in obtaining visas for Sudan from his seat in Nairobi. A British journalist reported that, during his May–June 2004 visit to Sudan, he waited “much of the month” in Khartoum before receiving travel permits to Darfur. The same journalist decided later to travel to Chad, to avoid the political and bureaucratic hurdles set up by the government of Sudan. Another British journalist similarly reported having been stuck in (expensive) Khartoum for “a couple” of weeks before receiving a permit to travel to Darfur. Rob Crilly (2010), a British Africa correspondent who reported extensively from Sudan, including Darfur, provides a lively illustration:
It felt good to be in Khartoum at last. For a year I had potted back and forth to the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi enquiring as politely as I could whether my visa was ready for collection…. But arriving in Khartoum was just the start of the journey to Darfur. Each foreigner has to first register with the Police Department of Aliens…. After the Department of Aliens came the Department of Foreign Correspondents and Journalists…. Now came the tricky part of obtaining permission to work as a journalist—filling in the “Purpose of Visit” section on my application for a press permit for Darfur…. But how to phrase “reporting on genocide” in a way that would be acceptable to the very regime responsible?
(Crilly, 2010, pp. 7–9)
Needless to say, none of these bureaucratic hurdles was easy to surmount. And, once journalists succeeded in accessing the field, their mobility was further inhibited. These challenges prevailed throughout the reporting period. After 2007, however, Khartoum further tightened its policies on foreign journalists, thus likely contributing to the massive decline in reporting. In the words of a Swiss interviewee: “Today Khartoum barely allows any journalists to go there.”
In addition, common sources of information dried up. Some aid agencies, always important sources for news reports, including three sections of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), were evicted, especially after the indictment of President al-Bashir. Other aid agencies became ever more cautious in light of the risk of being denied access to the populations in need. After all, evictions were based partly on claims by the government of Sudan that aid agencies had abandoned their commitment to neutrality and were supplying the ICC with information.
Denial of access by the government of Sudan and the drying up of sources of information thus likely contributed to the drop-off in reporting about Darfur after 2007. In addition, market forces played a major role, well captured in an interview with a German Africa correspondent who discussed stalemates in the decision-making bodies of the international community:
What’s going on in Darfur these days is barely being registered, neither by the public nor by journalists, because it is redundant in the end, because it has been happening for years. (Journalist interview conducted by Savelsberg in Germany, authors’ translation)
Demands by consumers of news media matter, especially among market-driven media, and the eventual decline of reporting (despite ongoing events) is certainly not unique to reporting about violent conflicts.
In short, the trend line of reporting about Darfur in prominent Western newspapers reflects the impact of market and political forces on the journalistic field. On the one hand, initial journalistic attention and a massive increase in reporting about Darfur was inspired by the political field. Western politicians and the UN played an important role, while actors from the human rights field provided support. This causal path was due to specific circumstances of the Darfur case. For example, the second wave of violence in Darfur coincided with the symbolically laden tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Also, the United States experienced a massive civil society mobilization after several American carrier groups, especially evangelical Christians, Jews, and African Americans, each for specific reasons, identified with victims of the violence and provoked relatively forceful rhetoric among political leaders. On the other hand, the restraints imposed by the government of Sudan intensified with growing international responses to the conflict. In addition, the flow of information from aid agencies dried up in response to pressure from the authorities in Khartoum. These observations speak to recent scholarship on the mediatization of politics. Yes, the logic of the media field may at times influence political actors, organizations, and institutions (Strömbeck & Esser, 2014), but reverse effects of the political field on journalism also seem to be at work (see also Mazzoleni & Schulz, 1999), especially whenever authoritarian regimes are involved.
Finally, political pressures coincided with economic forces of the media market. The cycle of news reporting, with its focus on the new and dramatic, enhanced the decline in media attention about ongoing suffering in Darfur. This decline would likely have occurred earlier, and it would have been even more abrupt had the ICC not intervened.
Framing the Violence
While the intensity of reporting about Darfur challenges factual denial (Cohen, 2001), we should also be concerned with ways in which the violence is interpreted. What frames do journalists put to use? How do they draw on competing interpretations generated, for example, in the judicial field, where the violence is seen as criminal violence; in the humanitarian field, that focuses on the humanitarian emergency, the suffering in internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugee camps; and—again distinct—in the diplomatic field, that engages in peace efforts and interprets the violence as armed conflict? Figure 2 shows that the crime frame predominates the interpretation of Darfur in Western news media. A discussion of the judicial field vis-à-vis the journalistic field is followed by a brief consideration of the humanitarian and diplomatic fields.
Michael Kearny, at a 2011 Vassar Institute conference on war journalism held in The Hague, showed how war reporting is increasingly permeated by the language of human rights and international law, often at the expense of political analysis. This trajectory from political to legal categories proceeds by means of diverse mechanisms, among them human rights NGO informants who, in Kearny’s words, “hijack the language of law” or seek to “mainstream the language of human rights.” Kearny’s argument is reflected in the sentiments of several interviewees. Diplomats and NGO specialists with a political science background charged that legal language endangers a political understanding of mass violence. Relatedly, Pendas’s (2006) analysis of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial shows how rules of the journalistic game, especially the objectivity rule, contribute to a literal transmission of courtroom events through media reporting to a broad public. As a result, he argues, historical truth is overshadowed by judicial truth. Trials, and media reporting on trials, focus attention on individuals, their criminal intent, and atrocities. The bureaucratic nature of the murder machine and its political context are almost lost from sight (see also Marrus, 2008; Savelsberg & King, 2011).
Both interviews and patterns revealed by the Darfur media data set speak to the relationship between journalism and the judicial field (for terms, see introduction). The data provide a more mixed portrait than that suggested by opposing strands in the literature on media and law. Africa correspondents generally revealed a substantial disconnect from the court. A German interviewee from Nairobi reported that he had never been to The Hague. Similarly, a British respondent claimed not to have received any information directly from the ICC. He learned only about special events, such as indictments—and those only from sources other than the ICC. An Irish journalist confessed that he knew about the ICC and its actions primarily as a newspaper reader. Yet another interviewee mentioned that information he received about big events at the ICC was based on wire reports. Other journalists, while reporting interactions with the court, experienced conditions in the judicial field as not compatible with their journalistic habitus. In the words of one respondent:
I had occasional contacts with investigators for the ICC, but that was in the context of the Congo, East Congo, and the DFLR [Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda], those Rwandan militias, and how they acquire funding. These people wanted information from me. I am a journalist. I told them, “One hand washes the other. You can get something from me, give me something of yours, and then we can talk reasonably in whatever way that can be published at all without endangering your work.” I never heard from them again. (Journalist interview conducted by Savelsberg in Germany, author’s translation)
This statement illustrates how not just geographic distance between Africa correspondents and the ICC, but also a different habitus and contrasting rules of the game impede communication. The journalist’s tit-for-tat practice does not work in interactions with those bound by judicial rules. Another interviewee, an Africa correspondent who works out of the capital city of his European country, contrasted the slow progress of judicial proceedings with the fast pace of journalistic work: “I’ve been there [ICC in The Hague] once. And it was useless, in fact…. Their time is not our time. It is not the same…. It is years.” Journalists also need to explain to domestic readers the institutional particularities of an international court. “We have the problem,” a journalist pointed out, “that the judicial system used in The Hague is not the French one. So we have to explain to people how it works.” This journalist observed that usual translation issues with turning “legalese” into everyday language intensify when international courts are the subjects.
Africa correspondents, however, are not the only contributors to journalistic work about Darfur. A German interviewee spoke about a colleague who worked from his paper’s headquarters and, while not an Africa specialist, did visit the ICC. Similarly, a U.S. journalist mentioned her paper’s specialist for institutions such as the ICC, who occasionally supplied her with relevant information. One interviewee who covered international organizations from her European capital city spoke about an upcoming trip to The Hague. Finally, a British correspondent reported, and his foreign editor confirmed, that the paper would send someone to The Hague “for the big day.” And such “big days” indeed find many journalists gathered in the ICC’s pressroom (see Figure 2).
Given these conditions of reporting and the ambivalent role of the ICC in its relation to journalists, how do judicial interventions affect media representations of Darfur? Our data demonstrate that several intervention points—but not all—are intensely reflected in journalistic reporting. Figure 3 displays the percentage of articles about Darfur per time period that cited the crime frame in combination with three competing frames. The graph shows that increases in use of the crime frame followed the release of the ICID report, the ICC prosecutor’s application for a Darfur-related arrest warrant (against Harun and Kushayb), the application for an arrest warrant against al-Bashir (the rather high level persisting after its issue), and finally a first court appearance of an accused. The crime frame lost ground, however, during the periods marked by UNSC Resolution 1564 (establishing the ICID) and the UNSC’s referral of the Darfur situation to the ICC. The latter action was immediately followed by a major diplomatic event (signing of the Abuja Peace Treaty), the lead-up (and after-effect) of which appears to have overwhelmed uses of the crime frame. Reporters favored instead the use of the civil war frame during this period, as the respective lines in Figure 3 indicate. Another drop in the use of the crime frame, this time surprising and unexplained, occurred after the ICC issued the first major arrest warrants (against Harun and Kushayb). In the following, we first focus on the crime frame and afterward return to the alternative and potentially competing frames.2
What exactly does the changing intensity of applying the crime frame and reporting specific types of victimization mean, and how can it be explained? The first major peak in citations of the crime frame followed the release of the ICID report in January 2005 (Figure 3). It was paralleled by a peak in intensity of reporting about killings and rapes. This may not be surprising, as the commission had cited instances of war crimes and crimes against humanity (but not genocide). Thus, not only did all papers intensify reporting about Darfur after February 1, 2005, the day of the report’s release to the public, they also now stressed the crime frame and reminded readers of the suffering of the population. A U.S. example must suffice. An article written by Warren Hogue of The New York Times illustrates how an American paper described the ICID report to its readers: “A United Nations commission investigating violence in the Darfur region of Sudan reports Monday that it had found a pattern of mass killings and forced displacements of civilians that did not constitute genocide but that represented crimes of similar gravity that should be sent to the International Criminal Court for prosecution” (February 1, 2005, p. 3).
The article was followed, on February 2, 2005, by an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Why Should We Shield the Killers?” critiquing the initial inclination of the Bush administration to challenge a UNSC referral of the Darfur situation to the ICC. Also on February 2, 2005, Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times wrote an article headlined, “Both Sides of Conflict in Darfur Dispute Findings in U.N. Report.” On February 9, 2005, Warren Hogue reported again, this time about Sudanese attempts to prevent international prosecution. On February 10, 2005, Samantha Power, then a “lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard,” used an op-ed in The New York Times to offer strong support for the ICC as a “court of first resort” and for a referral of Darfur to the court. More than a dozen articles and editorials followed in the remainder of February 2005, supplemented by numerous letters to the editor.
For a second example, consider the rise in the number of crime frame citations after the Office of the Prosecutor applied for an arrest warrant against Sudan’s sitting president, Omar al-Bashir (Figure 3). Use of the crime frame stabilized at this new, high level after the warrant was issued, and it increased further in the final reporting period, after the initial appearance of a rebel before the ICC. Again, a closer look at patterns of reporting in specific media sheds light on the meaning of this peak.
Illustrating the pattern again for the United States, The New York Times featured, on July 15, 2008, one day after Moreno-Ocampo’s application for an arrest warrant against al-Bashir, a long report by staff journalists Marlise Simons (Paris), Lydia Polgreen (Dakar), and Jeffery Gettleman (Nairobi). Their 1,446-word article reviewed the mass violence in Darfur. It also reminded the reader of Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, two previous sitting presidents who had been tried before international tribunals. The authors further quoted chief prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo: “Mr. Bashir had ‘masterminded and implemented’ a plan to destroy three ethnic groups…. Using government soldiers and Arab militias, the president ‘purposefully targeted civilians’” (Simons, Polgreen, & Gettleman, 2008). An editorial of the same day, entitled “Charged with Genocide,” opens with this sentence: “The truth can be difficult. That doesn’t make it any less true. And so we support the decision by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to bring charges of genocide against Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for his role in masterminding Darfur’s horrors” (New York Times, 2008). Also on the same day, an opinion piece by Richard Goldstone (2008), former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal For Rwanda (ICTR), strongly supported the arrest warrant against al-Bashir. Both the editorial and Goldstone’s piece challenged critics who pointed at an indictment’s problematic consequences for aid delivery and diplomatic efforts. Some 20 additional articles and editorials followed in The New York Times in the remainder of July 2008 alone. The editorials uniformly supported the prosecution.
A detailed analysis of other papers, such as the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, partly confirms patterns such as those found in The New York Times. Yet, it also shows that referencing the crime frame is not always associated with support for prosecutorial responses. Nevertheless, even here, ICC interventions refocused the world’s attention on the violence in the conflict zone. Further, the criminal nature of the violence was confirmed. And refocused attention and use of the (diagnostic) crime frame was, at least in some cases, associated with support for the prosecutor’s decision.
Figure 3 further shows that the humanitarian emergency frame fared less prominently than the crime frame when journalists sought to interpret the events in Darfur. A detailed analysis of humanitarian responses reveals that close contact between aid workers and journalists helped bring situations to the attention of newspaper readers in the early stages of a crisis. In long-lasting emergencies, however, news media lose interest. Sudanese state repression of media and aid organizations further contributed to the observed decline of the humanitarian frame in reporting. Unlike the criminal court process, which also drags out over a long time, at least from a journalistic perspective, humanitarian work does not produce spectacular events along the way such as an indictment against a country’s president. Media do report the occasional release of NGO reports, but such releases do not produce the same cascade of articles and editorials that an ICC decision evokes. Some of the patterns identified for the case of Darfur thus confirm recent findings on the new and important role of NGOs vis-à-vis news media, a role that is supported by strategies such as the staffing of online departments and the funding of reporting trips (Powers, 2015); yet, it also shows that interventions by international governmental organizations and courts were, at least in the case of Darfur, more effective.
Representations of mass violence produced in the diplomatic field, and most often associated with a violent conflict or civil war frame, also do not fare as prominently as does the crime frame, but they come to bear more often than humanitarian emergency interpretations. Detailed analyses show that this diplomatic media presence results partly from journalists’ routine encounters with diplomats as informants, relatively rare but noteworthy events produced in the diplomatic field, and the high public visibility of some actors in the diplomatic field (Savelsberg, 2015, chap. 6 and 7). The latter two factors appear to secure the diplomatic field’s more prominent representation in the news media than is granted the humanitarian field. Yet, diplomatic framing still declines over time, contrasting with citations of the judicial frame.
In sum, it seems as though events produced by the ICC demonstrate a particular ritual power (Durkheim, 2001) or legitimacy that is based on judicial proceedings’ communicative quality (Osiel,1997) or on their procedure and that secures them news value. And such news value, reflective of the market forces to which media are exposed, contributes to explaining the dominant position of the crime frame in reporting about Darfur. Finally, the mirror image of trend lines for the crime frame versus those frames that speak to armed conflict, where one increases when the other declines, reflects conflicts between the criminal justice and diplomacy fields and their opposing institutional logics.
African News Media and Darfur: The Case of Kenya
Patterns of national distinction in news reporting, identified across Northern countries, suggest that comparisons between Northern and African news media should be especially pronounced. After all, cultural and structural differences between both regions, differences in the role of specialized fields, and particularities of the media field itself are substantial. A recent doctoral dissertation provides comparative information (Siguru, Forthcoming). Like the work from which the first section of this essay draws, it too focuses on journalistic receptions of the Darfur conflict. Yet, it does so for newspapers in Kenya, with additional data collected in Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa. The Kenyan component of this study involves content analysis of 538 news reports and interviews with foreign correspondents. Analyses provide information on the frequency and framing of the Darfur conflict in news reports from Kenya and on the sources on which African journalists draw when they report about Darfur.
Frequencies of Reporting in Kenyan News Media
Table 1 shows the coverage of Darfur in Kenya, Sudan’s neighbor to the South, over time. Like in the Global North, media are silent about the conflict in 2003, the year of the first massive wave of atrocities. More astonishing may be the fact that during the peak coverage of Darfur in 2004, three major Kenyan newspapers produced merely 144 articles, which is comparable to coverage in one single Irish paper in the same year (Savelsberg, 2015, p. 224). This can be attributed only partially to the smaller size of the Kenyan papers. The Daily Nation has 56 pages with five pages dedicated to international news; two of these are specifically dedicated to news on Africa. The East African also has 57 pages, but no specialized international news section; its international coverage focuses on East Africa. The Standard has 53 pages, three of which are specifically dedicated to international news. Like in Western countries, 2005 saw a decline in Kenyan reporting, but more pronounced so than Northern papers, and—different from the North—it never reached the level of 2005 again.
Table 1. Number of Articles Published in Kenya
The Daily Nation
Patterns over time indicate that Kenyan media responded more to news of the violence, and possibly to pronouncements by actors such as UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, than to subsequent institutional interventions. In fact, the three Kenyan papers published only 79 stories about Darfur in 2008, the year in which the ICC prosecutor applied for an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir. But note that this pattern does not differ substantially from that of Northern papers—a substantial drop from 2004 to 2005, a rebound, albeit not quite to the level of 2004 in 2006 and 2007, and the beginning of a more substantial decline in reporting in 2008. It is almost astonishing that the decline in 2008 was not more dramatic. Kenya had just experienced its worst bout of post-electoral violence in the winter of 2008. The year 2008 also saw vociferous debates about whether Kenya’s case would be forwarded to the ICC for prosecution, or whether a regional court should prosecute those seen as bearing responsibility for the violence after the botched 2007 elections.
Framing Darfur in Kenyan Media
While trends in the frequency of reporting show an astonishing similarity between Kenyan and Northern papers, patterns of framing differ significantly. Table 2 shows that Kenyan news stories on Darfur most often framed the atrocities as a civil war or armed conflict, raging between rebel groups and the Khartoum government. Characteristic is a statement in The East African that referred to the situation in Darfur as a result of, among other factors: “A four-year-old war between the Darfur rebel movements and the government, which is part of the breakdown between Sudan’s centre—the NCP in Khartoum, which controls wealth and political power—and the marginalised peripheries” (staff writer, May 14, 2007). In fact, all three newspapers viewed the atrocities as the result of an internal center-periphery conflict. This sentiment was echoed in interviews by journalists and often formed the basis upon which possible mechanisms were provided for solving the conflict. The crime frame—dominant in Northern media—comes in as a close second. It is followed by the humanitarian emergency frame in third rank, as in Northern papers, but with less distance.
Number of articles using specific frame (%)
Note: (*) A single article may cite several frames.
Figure 4 shows that the use of frames differed substantially by year. The relatively even distribution of frames in 2004 and the relatively high representation of the humanitarian emergency frame compared to other years are comparable to observations for Northern countries, as is the predominance of the crime frame after the ICC’s indictment of President al-Bashir in 2008. The most remarkable difference is the strong predominance of the civil war frame in 2005 and 2006.
The strong position of the civil war frame, more pronounced than in Northern media, is possibly related to the substantial peace efforts undertaken by the African Union. Prominent in the time frame under consideration were the Abuja peace talks of 2004–2006, named after the Nigerian capital where they were held. Simultaneously, the ICC faced growing legitimacy challenges in Africa. Consider the following statement by a Kenyan journalist:
Why is the Western world more interested in criminal justice, international criminal justice, as opposed to peace? You see, that’s the question. You issue a warrant, with this warrant you make Bashir more insecure, and he will be less concerned about settling. Now if you can, there have been some people who have argued, bring Sudan back to the table of the international community and assure Bashir that he is safe, don’t threaten him with ICC, don’t threaten him with [arrest], then he will be more inclined to deal with that issue. So that has been the argument between ICC and the AU.
(Journalist interview conducted by Siguru in Kenya, 2015)
Note though that, in 2008, with declining coverage of Darfur and the indictment of President al-Bashir, the crime frame becomes the most frequently used frame in Kenyan newspapers just as it does in papers from the Global North. The skepticism toward the ICC clearly does not translate into a rejection, which is illustrated by the following quotation from an interview with an editor of Kenya’s The Daily Nation:
At some point, impunity has to be tamed, and if it will take the ICC to tame impunity then, for heaven’s sake, let it be. Remember if we are to be honest, what is ICC? It is not … it’s not an exclusively Western club; it is a creation of the Rome statute. Who are the signatories? So when we were committing ourselves to this Rome Statute, our hope was we would later manipulate it to serve our selfish interest, or we would use it as an instrument to dispense justice to all and sundry? So to me, I’m fully for the ICC; if it is what it will take to end impunity in Africa, so be it.
(Editor interview conducted by Siguru, Kenya, 2012)
In short, while the intensity of reporting about Darfur in Kenyan media is weak compared to that in Northern papers, the trend line is comparable. In terms of framing, we find noteworthy differences, but these differences do not seem to be as pronounced as African critiques of Northern reporting about African mass violence suggest (Mamdani, 2007). Other studies, using different indicators, show even greater similarities between Northern and African reporting about Darfur (e.g., Mody, 2010; Ray, 2009).
Note further that the use of ethnic categories, a frequent target of critique directed against Northern media, is quite prominent in Kenyan papers. Some media scholars are highly critical of the use of ethnic categories in Northern press representations of African conflicts. They charge that Western journalists “swallowed the ethnic interpretation of conflict promoted by interested parties locally” (e.g., McNulty, 1999, p. 283). Also Wall (2007) observes a tendency in Western media to attribute African violence to tribalism. She argues that reference to long-standing ethnic or tribal affiliations allows Western media to avoid references to the contributions of colonial powers in planting the seeds of conflict. Interviews show that African journalists expressed similar critical sentiments regarding the ethnicization of conflicts in Africa by their Northern colleagues (Siguru & Savelsberg, 2013; see also Mamdani, 2007).
One of the most scathing critiques of simplified uses of ethnic categories in debates about Darfur was written by Rob Crilly (2010), a British journalist. Further, systematic analyses of African media reporting disclose small differences in the use of vocabulary. One of the few content analyses of African newspapers and their reporting about Darfur, in fact, finds astounding similarities with Northern media reports: “a tendency to report on the violence in an oversimplified, racialized way” whereby “fault lines in this conflict are often the same as those used by western media” (Ray, 2009, pp. 172, 176).
Literature thus suggests a double paradox: that Northern journalists speak critically of ethnicized or racialized descriptions of African conflicts—exactly the practice for which they are reproached—and that African media do not seem to differ fundamentally from their Northern counterparts—despite the disdain with which their journalists at times speak about Northern media. Part of the explanation appears to lie in the nature of journalistic genres. Space constraints lead to simplified narratives that do not live up to the differentiations and elaboration of insights into the historical construction of group identities that we might encounter when we conduct interviews with journalists. But further, if major Northern newspapers—leaders in the world of journalism in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada—suffer from a shortage of resources and resulting constraints in intra-African travel, African journalists suffer these limitations even more. This shortage of resources results in restrictions on investigative journalism and creates, instead, dependency on news agencies or reports issued by international organizations or INGOs. The dependency of African journalists, in particular, on such sources must be considered at least one explanation for the relatively small difference in patterns of media reporting between Global North and African papers.
Who Contributes to the Content of Kenyan Newspapers?
Two isomorphic forces are to be explored in greater detail. We here address, first, the reliance of Kenyan papers on Northern contributors, and second, the sources of information on which Kenyan news reports rely.
Direct Northern Contributions to Kenyan News Reporting
Kenyan journalist interviewees argued that editors and managers of their respective news organizations were too willing to use stories by Northern journalists and news organizations, often favoring them over stories by local journalists. Table 3 shows indeed that more than 40% of stories about Darfur, published in three Kenyan newspapers, were supplied by the Reuters news agency alone. Reuters of course is headquartered in the United Kingdom. A close look shows, however, that this pattern is due primarily to practices at The Daily Nation, which dominates news reporting about Darfur.
Table 3. Articles on Darfur by By-Line Accreditation in Kenya’s Newspapers
The Daily Nation
The East African
Note: (*) N/A refers to those articles with no by-line attribution.
Editors present their reliance on wire services as economically necessary, while journalists reject the financial argument. Data on comparative costs are not available. It should be noted though that the Nation Media Group, owner of two of the papers, has two journalists whose beats are Sudan and South Sudan, and yet, The Daily Nation often paid for stories on Darfur; even when their sister newspaper, The East African, had journalists covering events in either Juba or Khartoum at the same time. Journalists saw this ubiquitous use of wire services and their role in representing the atrocities in Darfur as either dereliction of duty or a consequence of lingering subservience to whiteness:
Let me tell you, it’s been very frustrating, […] You know, sometimes it’s the newsroom that sponsors you to go to these conferences, go to this conference, interview so and so, bring us this story. You go there, you spend your resources, you spend your time, you file the story. The following day, what do you see? You see there’s a story from Reuters. […] We have this mentality that foreign media is the best, you know […] It is something that it’s a practice that goes on in the newsroom, and it frustrates most reporters.
(Journalist interview conducted by Siguru, Kenya 2015)
A journalist working for The East African newspaper referred to this predominance of wire services as being “purely criminal,” once the tape recorder had been switched off. We cannot adjudicate this dispute between Kenyan editors and journalists here. But we do note that the inclusion of reports about Darfur, written by Northern journalists or provided by Northern news agencies is substantial. It is plausible to assume that it contributes to a greater similarity in the framing of mass violence between Northern and Kenyan media reports than would be expected in light of African critiques of Northern reporting.
Indirect Influences: Sources of Information for Kenyan Media Reports
Understanding the news as a process of knowledge production necessitates that we view sources as co-constructors of this knowledge (see Gans, 1979; Schudson, 1989; Weimann, 2000). As stated by Sigal, the news is not what happens, but rather what “someone says has happened, thus making the choice of sources crucial” (1973, p. 69). The choice of whom to use as a source, in fact, works to anoint who is considered as credible and what type of knowledge is considered worthy of being reported. Benson (2006) talks about sources, especially political sources, as determining what is important for the audience. Gans (1979, p. 238) sees news selection as heavily reliant on two processes, one that determines the “availability and [relationships between] journalists [and] sources,” and the other that determines “the suitability of news, which [ties] journalists to audiences” (1979, p. 238). The news is therefore a product that is negotiated between sources and reporters with the aim of creating a connection with the audience.
Table 4 lists the different sources that journalists cited in Kenyan media stories about Darfur. In addition to government sources, which by far dominate, international organizations also fare prominently. NGOs, rebels, and named individuals come close to sharing third place. The significant roles of international organizations, such as the United Nations and The African Union, and of international NGOs are confirmed by interviews with Kenyan journalists.
Table 4. Sources of Information in Kenyan Newspapers (N = 1091)
Type of source
Total Sources (%)
The prominence of government sources is not surprising, since journalists generally consider government officials to be some of the most important suppliers of information (Rosen, 1999; Sigal, 1973; Tuchman, 1978). The government of Sudan produced the greatest number of references in this category, followed by government actors from the United States, the United Kingdom, and China. The Kenyan government comes as a distant fifth.
After governments, international organizations serve as frequent sources of information. Dominant in this category are the United Nations and its affiliate organizations, followed by the African Union and the European Union. As the UN runs some of the largest refugee camps in Kenya and has its news station IRIN headquartered in Nairobi, its dominance in this category is not surprising. The ICC was the least frequently cited organization (4.5%). Journalists thought that the ICC was afraid that providing information to news organizations would harm its own investigation.
International organizations did not only supply information. They often facilitated journalists’ travel to remote areas. Kenyan journalists accept such help, but not without caution. A highly respected New Media Group journalist spoke about his unease at having his trip to refugee camps in Kenya facilitated by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees). This journalist worried how such assistance would, subtly, affect his framing of the situation in the camp:
Sometimes it can be very difficult, like for instance, recently, when the war broke out in South Sudan, Dabaab and Kakuma [refugee camps] were flooded again. But how would I go there? The UNHCR took me there. So, chances of me looking at things from the UNCHR perspective are very high.
(Journalist interview conducted by Siguru, Kenya 2015)
INGOs are a relevant, but distant third as a source of information, confirming but also relativizing recent literature (Powers, 2015). Out of the 95 INGO sources, 64 are headquartered in the United States, 17 in the United Kingdom, three in France and Switzerland, five in Sudan, and one in South Africa. INGOs often have more financial resources than media organizations working in Kenya, enabling them to conduct in-depth investigations on the ground and to produce documents that the media can easily consume. Human Rights Watch (HRW), for example, conducted interviews with some of the 110,000 Darfur refugees in Chad and prepared a report that it then emailed to Reuters offices. The report was the foundation and the sole source quoted in a subsequent story published by The Daily Nation and lifted from Reuters. Titled “Rights abuses rampant in Sudan, says lobby,” the story urged the United Nations to reinstate human rights monitors to Sudan:
With thousands of civilians already killed and hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced, this is exactly the kind of human rights disaster where the commission needs to appoint a monitor, it [HRW] said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Similarly, in June of 2004, The Daily Nation, in a story lifted from Reuters, quoted an Amnesty International (AI) report that framed Darfur as a “dire” humanitarian situation with “repeated human rights abuse” by the Khartoum government that could no longer be ignored (Reuters, 2004). INGOs are also actors who spend more time on the ground during an atrocity than any other outsiders. Some journalists noted that, once they had arrived at a site, INGOs were often one of the only credible sources of information. This was especially true for journalists not familiar with the actors and terrain of the conflict, and it generated substantial trust:
Now the thinking is, of course, we don’t think too much about this … but the thinking on the ground is because it’s coming from the UN or certain NGOs, international NGOs, then it’s accurate information. So you will go with it.
(Journalist interview conducted by Siguru, Kenya 2015)
Despite such trust, some journalists worry that their narratives and perspectives would be heavily influenced by these sources. Kenyan journalists thus seemed to have an ambivalent relationship with INGOs, especially whenever INGOs become key players in the production of information about events in Darfur. Some suspected that the framing of atrocities by INGOs was susceptible to being colored by colonial and neo-colonial interests, in line with arguments by Amoko (1999) and Mutua (2002). A former journalist who had worked for The Standard pointed out the challenges faced by journalists. He was also keen to point out that this was not a uniquely Kenyan or African problem:
A journalist is hard pressed to pursue the agenda of the [INGO], because they are paying for your accommodation and the need to access these areas. This is not a unique problem to Africa per se. I’ve had conversations with other journalists who experience the same problems as well, especially in terms of investments. But yes, in brief, that is the challenge because our media houses do not have funding, or their priorities are not aligned in that direction.
(Journalist interview conducted by Siguru, Kenya, 2012)
The relatively important role of INGOs as suppliers of information is, together with the role of governments and international organizations as informers, another feature that Kenyan journalists share with their Northern counterparts. Even if we were to discount the frequency with which Kenyan newspapers resort to articles provided by Northern journalists or news agencies, it should no longer surprise us that African-Northern differences between the dynamics of reports over time and of the framing are not more pronounced than they are. Other sources of information are rebels (who are also sought-after informants for Northern journalists) and various individuals. Together they make up just over 14 percent of informants, and that representation would not lead to substantial differences in reporting.
Concluding Considerations: Globalizing and Regional Forces in Reporting about Darfur
Our analysis of media reporting of African genocide, specifically for the case of Darfur, has yielded several findings. First, the world is not in a state of denial (Cohen, 2001) or indifference. Media actually reported about Darfur over a sustained period of time. Yet, many situations of mass violence go unnoticed in the global North, and also in the case of Darfur, months of mass victimization passed before the world took notice. Global actors such as the UN General Secretary, and the link to a past-recognized genocide in Rwanda advanced this mobilization. National politicians and INGOs involved in human rights campaigns also helped mobilize journalistic attention. And, as multivariate analyses confirm, interventions by international institutions such as the ICC contributed to the frequency and content of that reporting (Savelsberg & Nyseth Brehm, 2015). Findings also show that the crime frame, used to shed light on the violence, fares prominently, particularly in the Global North, and its relative strength increases over time, especially after UN and ICC interventions.
Second, an analysis of Kenyan media reporting on Darfur showed astonishing similarities with Northern media reporting. This applies to the onset of reporting, the cycles of attention and, eventually, the drop off of reporting. It also applies partially—even though less prominently—to the framing. And it applies to the use of ethnic categories. We discussed two major conditions for similarities in detail: Kenyan editors’ resort to reports by Northern journalists and African and Northern journalists’ dependency on similar sources of information, especially governments, international organizations, and INGOs. But we noted differences as well. The volume of reporting about Darfur in Kenyan newspapers was modest compared to that in many Northern media. This is remarkable, especially as Kenya is a neighbor of Sudan (now South Sudan). Also, even though we found astonishingly similar uses of competing frames to interpret the violence, the armed conflict frame prevailed somewhat in Kenya, while the crime frame fared most prominently in Northern journalism. Growing mistrust of the ICC on the African continent may be one explanation, especially in Kenya after ICC action against President Kenyatta, but also the focus on mediation on the part of the African Union, a type of response to mass violence that corresponds more closely with the armed conflict frame than with the crime frame. Examining Kenyan reporting parallel to that in various Northern countries certainly confirms the benefits of comparative scholarship on journalism (Benson, 2013; Marx Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Rucht, 2002; Savelsberg, 2015).
In conclusion, social fields neighboring the journalism field, such as the criminal justice, humanitarian, diplomacy, and political fields, leave traces in journalistic reporting. And so do media markets. While the types of media analyzed here, and the journalists who serve as Africa correspondents, enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy compared to other news outlets, the intensity and interpretive implications of reporting cannot be understood without reference to such forces. The political field contributed to legitimizing Darfur as a subject, speaking to the impact of the political field on reporting (Revers, 2014). Yet, the political field was also pushed into action by media publications, in line with arguments about the mediatization of politics (Mazzoleni & Schulz, 1999; Strömbeck & Esser, 2014), but—and this is significant—only in the context of civil society mobilization, and primarily in the United States. NGOs, and the fields with which they are associated, also inspired Darfur reporting, in line with recent literature (Powers, 2015), but less effectively than national and international governmental actors did. Finally, the economic field, specifically media markets, contributed to the drop off of reporting about Darfur after 2008. Restrictive politics vis-à-vis media by the authoritarian Sudanese regime aided that trend. In addition, Kenyan media face conditions that constrain autonomy not just vis-à-vis other social fields, but also vis-à-vis the Northern media field. Crucially, the social organization of media reporting filters what is communicated to a world audience. Suffering and its causation alone certainly are insufficient conditions for journalistic attention or choices of interpretive frames when African genocides are being reported.
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(2.) Analyses further show that references to particular types of violence and crime, specifically killings and rapes, peaked, albeit in less pronounced ways, at the same stages at which the crime frame was cited most frequently. The reporting of destruction of livelihood and displacements, however, showed steady declines barely interrupted by judicial interventions. Modest exceptions are minor upticks in reporting the destruction of livelihood after the release of the commission report and the charging of al-Bashir, as well as in reporting about displacements after the issuing of arrest warrants against Harun and Kushayb.