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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 top story.

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 preparedness?

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 Red Cross

 

Something visual

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.

Subliminal message

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
Amanda Williamson is an ICRC press officer.



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