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Time Machine Congo? The DRC in Mainstream Media (Part 3)

Time Machine Congo? The DRC in Mainstream Media (Part 3)

The major storyline on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in major Belgian and American mainstream media? Basically, it all comes down to this: the Congo is a ‘tribal’ battlefield which Westerners try to pacify. But apart from this main narrative, what side stories are being told over and over again? What binds these allegedly ‘little’ stories? What is missing? And what, in the end, do these stories mean for the people of the Congo?

The analysis of two corpora of journalistic articles from De Standaard and Time Magazine, reveals the existence of a number of side stories which are often sensationalist in nature. Both media, for instance, share a fascination for the Ebola virus which is mentioned 64 times in De Standaard and 33 times in Time. In De Standaard, it does not take much to start reporting on the subject: a rumor suffices (e.g. Dec. 7, 2001).

In both media, reports on the Ebola-outbreaks do not go far beyond emphasizing the deadliness of the virus and communicating an endless series of (often quite precise) body counts. “Ebola virus claims three more” (T: May 29, 1995), “In 1995 Ebola killed hundreds of Congolese” (DS: Dec 7, 2001), “97 Ebola deaths” (T: Apr. 25, 1997), “at least 86 people have been killed” (T: Apr. 03, 1997) and so on. The ongoing litany of Ebola rumors, Ebola outbreaks, and Ebola dead creates the impression that the Congo is a truly disease-ridden country. An impression which is strengthened by infrequent but powerful reports about, for instance, “a deadly flue raging through the Congo” which is said to be “only one of 183 epidemics which have plagued the country since 2002” (DS: Feb. 20 2003).

Apart from Ebola, Time and De Standaard have specialized in their own favorite little side stories. The text corpus of De Standaard shows that the Belgian newspaper particularly favors news about airplanes, above all if they crash. No less than 40 references in the corpus hint at such accidents, exemplified by article headlines such as “Humanitarian flight crashes in Eastern Congo” (Sep 3, 2008), “Three Belgians unharmed in plane crash in Eastern Congo” (Apr. 16, 2008), and “Who flies in the Congo has to fasten his seatbelt and pray to God” (Apr. 17, 2008).

Time Magazine in its turn is quite infatuated with apes in general, and gorilla/s (55), bonobo/s (35), and chimpanzee/s (10) in particular. Time’s genuine care for these beasts leads to 6 articles (out of 66) exclusively devoted to them. Time frequently combines the stories of the gorillas with its dominating narrative of ethnic warfare (see the first article of this series). “Gorillas in the Crossfire“ (Oct. 13, 2007), amongst others, focuses on some of the war agents through the lens of the gorillas. In this article, the ‘native’ rebels are depicted as brutes who killed at least two silverbacks “execution-style” in a “shocking act”, whereas the International Community (represented by the MONUC), is said to be providing “protection to the gorillas.”

The Exceptional Becomes the Norm

How should the ongoing infatuation with Ebola outbreaks and airplane disasters be interpreted? For one, these topics are safe bets for every news reporter: they require only a minimum of journalistic effort (rephrasing press releases) and they promise a high return on investment in terms of emotional reactions of the reader. Despite the fact that both media claim to strive for journalistic excellence, Ebola and airplane crashes clearly belong to the sensationalist “journalism of the exception”, as media observer Bosah Ebo called it in the essay “American Media and African Culture” (see: Africa’s Media Image, page 16). As such, these articles harm the Congo to great extent. But the problem lies not only in the sensationalist quality of the news reports. The problem lies particularly in the constant repetition of these narratives. By doing so, the exceptional is elevated to the norm through which the Congo in the Western psyche gets increasingly linked to health catastrophes and airplane disasters.

But the sensationalist and cinematically compelling quality of Ebola, airplane disasters, and gorillas does not sufficiently explain the incessant focus on these topics. It does not explain adequately why Ebola, for instance, attracts so much attention whereas nearby outbreaks from easily preventable diseases such as polio and sleeping sickness go unreported. It does not explain why neither the story of Malaria (T: 2, DS: 7) nor the story of AIDS (T: 2, DS: 2) are worth more than highly infrequent references in De Standaard or Time, although both diseases are a much bigger thread to the Congolese. Malaria, for one, killed 97.000 Congolese in 2002, according to the most recent WHO statistics (“Mortality Country Fact Sheet 2006”).

An essential aspect which explains the focus on Ebola, airplane crashes, and gorillas is the extent to which these issues can be linked to the West. Airplanes can not be associated with the West, because they are almost exclusively Russian-made Antonovs (which De Standaard does not cease to repeat). And the same goes for Ebola: no medicine in the world can beat it.

Malaria, sleeping sickness, and AIDS, however, are a whole different ballgame. Both can be strongly linked to the West and its pharmaceutical industry which produces medication (if it produces medication) at a price which remains unaffordable to most Congolese or its government. Statistics of the WHO – for instance, the online “Country Profile for HIV/AIDS” – give a pretty good idea about the insanity of the current situation. First-line treatment of AIDS, according to these statistics, annually costs about 348 USD. With an average annual income of 108 USD (and a government already spending almost half of its budget on health care), what are the chances that the ‘estimated’ 450.000-2.600.000 HIV infected Congolese get proper treatment? What are the odds that people die partially or completely untreated? And more important within the context of this article: should disease-obsessed journalists not focus on this story too?

The story of Malaria and AIDS are complex stories, pervaded with hints at Western complicity which makes them highly unattractive to commercial Western media. Not covering these stories saves time and money. It avoids getting stung by moral responsibility. It avoids asking uncomfortable questions about the West’s involvement in the Congo. It avoids pestering Western multinationals(and potential advertisers). In short, for De Standaard and Time, no (commercial) good can come from covering these topics.

Time Machine Congo

Apart from sensationalism, commercial interest, and obliviousness to Western involvement, another (and perhaps the most essential) issue that ties together airplance crashes, apes, and even Ebola is the notion of ‘time’. Or better: of being out of date. The Antonovs in De Standaard are told to be “more than 40 years old” (Sep 28, 2002) and the handling of the crashes is old-fashioned, to say the least: “there are only buckets of water available to put out the fire” (Apr. 17, 2008).
Time’s interest in gorillas seems to be less a matter of ecological concern than a matter of respect for humanity’s ancestry, as “bonobos vie with chimpanzees for the title of man's closest relative” (Apr. 10, 2008 ) and because “we see ourselves” if “we look into their eyes” (Feb. 13, 2008). The ancientness of “great apes” is further emphasized by the jungle they live in, which is said to be “untouched by man” (Jan. 09, 2005).

The Ebola narrative contains an important aspect of time too, amongst others because the Congo’s hygienic standards are depicted as highly primitive. Time Magazine, for instance, writes that “the only hint of hygiene was a torn garbage bag on the rusting operating table” (Apr. 25, 1997). Also, the disease is said to spread like a fire due to the Congolese ancient customary of preparing dead bodies for burial by “the handling of various organs” (T: Apr. 25, 1997).

Outdated airplanes and ditto hygiene, primitive burial customs, ancient apes and untouched jungles: the story of the Congo according to Time and De Standaard is a narrative of traveling back in time. Contemporary Congo is a time machine through which one returns to a historical place at least 40 years ago, carrying an ancientness and primitiveness which can not be overlooked.

The consequences of this discourse for the Congolese are grave. How can you rely on people living in the past? How can you deal constructively with that kind of surrounding marked by primitivism, ancientness, and tribalism (see the first article of this series: ‘Tribal’ Battlefield Congo?). “We should just give it all back to the whites”, stated a Congolese river captain consequently in Time, because “when the whites left, we didn’t just stay where we were. We went backwards” (Feb. 14, 2008).

“Give it all back to the whites”: that seems the only possible conclusion left in view of the Congo discourses of De Standaard and Time. Articles such as the one with the Congolese river captain are headlined accordingly: “Come Back, Colonialism, All Is Forgiven.”

Congo and the Colonial Discourse

The Congo articles in the corpora of De Standaard and Time Magazine tell a story which is well known since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and which has been reproduced over and over again ever since. It is the story of indigenous irrationalism and tribalism. It is a narrative of Congo as a dark, outdated, primitive, ancient place. It is, in short, a story belonging to the ongoing “colonial discourse” in Western media, described by media researcher David Spurr (Rhetoric of Empire) and many others.

Airplane crashes, and ‘celebrity’ diseases confirm the dysfunctional, disease-ridden, and primitive image of Africa in general and the Congo in particular. As a consequence, Congo remains for most Europeans a highly confusing place at best, and an incomprehensible darkness at worst.

“The only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people”, wrote the 2001 UN panel in view of the systematic looting of the Congo (42). The same conclusion should be drawn about De Standaard and Time Magazine after analysing the Congo discourses in these two media.