Newshounds on the trail
by Amanda Williamson
Dealing with the media in a humanitarian
crisis can be a trying and thankless task. Priorities have to
be set to ensure that activities to help the victims do not
become caught up in calls for a high media profile. Is visibility
in the world's press so important, anyway?
In the reception of the palatial hotel in Addis Ababa where
even the trees perpetually pipe out muzak, the tragedy which
was unfolding kilometres away seemed to belong to another
world. Against the discreet tinkling of Gershwin, the
international press was in a frenetic rush to make the latest
bulletin on the drought in Ethiopia, momentarily the world's
Journalists, identifiable if not by their spongy
microphones then by the multi-pocketed safari waistcoats, were
in anxious huddles trying to board the flight to Gode in
south-east Ethiopia, where the first BBC images of starvation
had triggered the huge media response.
An endless procession were also returning from Gode -
marked by weary and dusty appearances and haunted expressions.
Out of the professional mode which demands a sometimes callous
detachment, many were relieved to share with colleagues their
distress at having witnessed the sight of children wasting
away in front of them. They also felt uncomfortable about
working from a luxurious hotel; however, the technology
involved in today's pressurized, as-it-happens news demands a
guaranteed electricity supply - not always easy in Ethiopia.
For most Red Cross people, the sudden media invasion was
incomprehensible. Why only now? Why boil the issue down to the
lowest common denominator without exploring the wider picture?
Why view the aid effort as the only solution to the problem
without considering the more important elements of disaster
Value in poverty
"I am often asked to compare this crisis and the tragedy of the
1980s. So much has changed since then that it is difficult to draw a bridge
over all that. Then, it was like a compressed bottle which exploded in front
of us - thousands of wasted and homeless people. I led a governmental expert
crisis group and it was the most shocking and depressing experience of my
life to see people dying, but also dispossessed of everything they owned. I
became aware of my own personal and my country's poverty - we just couldn't
respond alone and that is not always easy to acknowledge.
When human suffering is caused by other humans, there is someone to blame
and therefore challenge. When it is climatic, the danger is to become too
fatalistic. You cannot change the weather, but you can develop mechanisms
enabling people to mitigate the effects of nature. There is value in
poverty, and people are not worthless because they are in a difficult
situation, but they need the means to help themselves.
I believe that the Ethiopian Red Cross should embrace this philosophy. We
are seen as an organization to turn to only in a time of crisis. Instead, we
should be sharing knowledge and developing mechanisms in the country to
avoid always giving, giving.
Ultimately, it is up to us, as Ethiopians, including the Red Cross, to
set our own priorities and develop an approach appropriate
to our culture and our means. We cannot afford either to minimize
the value of human beings. But we belong also to a worldwide
family which is our strength - we can truly embrace the ideal
that we all, as people on this planet, have a duty to ease
suffering wherever it is."
Mebrat Wolde Tensaie -- secretary general of the Ethiopian
It is not always easy to persuade colleagues of the potency
of the media's influence - especially when confronted by the
pack of media hounds who sometimes appear to want to feed
off human misery. Yet we quickly discovered there were a sizeable
number of respectable and diligent journalists who wanted
to broaden the scope, to establish the scale of the problem,
and this was the group we targeted. The Pied Piper effect
which often characterizes the response to a BBC exclusive
means that the international press feels compelled to follow.
For British journalists, who constituted the majority, there
was also the inevitable comparison with the Live Aid
syndrome - the overwhelming public response to the catastrophic
famine in the 1980s which had imprinted Ethiopia indelibly
onto the British psyche. This easy comparison led to an uncomfortable
dilemma for the press and for us in the Red Cross Red Crescent
Movement. While there were certainly areas in the Somali National
Regional State where the failure of four successive seasonal
rainfalls had had a devastating impact on parts of the population,
this had not yet assumed the proportions of the disaster in
the 1980s, although the potential was very real for it to
be even worse if the rains did not come and the international
response was not swift.
The challenge, especially for the visual media, was to convey this
perspective accurately yet satisfy the professional pressure for powerful
images. "How can you portray a 'potential' disaster in pictures alone -
this healthy-looking man could look much worse in a few weeks if the rains
don't fall? It's just not possible," explained one photographer. He
knew that his editors wanted strong, evocative pictures of individual
suffering, even if zooming out with his camera would have shown a different
picture. We could also recognize that awareness raising was a vital element
in securing international support to mitigate the human effects of the
drought. To maximize this potential, while remaining factual, credible and
avoiding reducing human beings to helpless and somehow valueless people, was
a major challenge for us.
The Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict
The drought that has ravaged the Horn of Africa, and south-eastern
Ethiopia in particular, in recent months has further exacerbated the already
desperate humanitarian situation in the region. Indeed, it came just at the
moment when a territorial conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea was in full
swing. This bitter trench war was triggered in May 1998 by a border dispute
between the two countries.
According to various unconfirmed reports, tens of thousands of soldiers
from the ranks of both armies have been killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
At the outset of hostilities, the ICRC reminded both governments of their
obligations to respect the rules of international humanitarian law. Although
Eritrea has not acceded to the Geneva Conventions nor their Additional
Protocols, it is bound by the rules of customary law applicable in the case
of international armed conflict.
Finally, after two years of one of the bloodiest wars the African
continent has ever known, an agreement to cease hostilities, brokered by the
Organization of African Unity, was signed by the two parties on 18 June in
Algiers. It has temporarily brought to a halt a conflict that has prompted
more than half a million people to flee their homes.
Numerous meetings between the ICRC, the International
Federation and the Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS) convinced us of
the importance of ultimately preserving our long-term
credibility, especially for the ERCS, and to resist the
temptation to seize a snippet of prime-time fame. We wanted to
convey a subliminal message of being knowledgeable, efficient
and active. This was not always compatible with the relentless
rhythm of today's satellite TV world, where journalists had to
fill daily airtime with new and interesting information about
the drought. In the absence of 'new' pictures, it meant the
story took twists and turns of speculation, retrospection,
analysis and sometimes admittedly disingenuous "the
situation is getting worse" diagnostics which in reality
were difficult to assess.
"Aid agencies say" became an important way for
journalists to add legitimacy to their analysis and some
organizations, without the apolitical ethics which underpin
Red Cross communication and grateful for the visibility
opportunity, provided the political opinions journalists were
looking for. Unwilling to do this, we probably sacrificed many
'visibility' opportunities but the price of losing credibility
and even jeopardizing our activities would have been too high.
To combat this, we decided to 'drip' references to, and images
of, Red Cross action in the media by providing journalists
with constant information and access to our activities. These
would resonate much more potently with the audience than a
'talking head' debating and discussing an issue from a hotel
rooftop. Most journalists, grateful for quick, factual and
sometimes background information to help them put the story in
its proper perspective, were more than happy to include the
Red Cross in their coverage.
Did we achieve our goal? Well, that depends on what the
goal of media management in a crisis actually is. Is the
ultimate objective simply to be in the picture more than the
rest? In that case, we failed, and we always will.
Amanda Williamson is an ICRC press officer.
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