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VOA On Covering The Humanitarian Disaster In Congo

ANALYSIS: Lack of Foreign Resources Plagued U.S. Mumbai Coverage

Steve Redisch, VOA executive editor, says the challenge of covering the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the Congo is getting the story on the air and getting it right.

In a webcast on the tenth anniversity of its program, Central Africa Today, VOA held a Webcast seminar: "Covering Congo: Who's Listening?"

Panelists labeled it one of the greatest human rights crises in the world, and one that has not gotten a lot of attention in media around the world. The roots of the fighting stretch to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the tribal fighting between Hutus and Tutsis that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, there are militias from both groups still fighting in the Congo.

"The 1994 genocide is not over," said VOA PR director Joan Mower, saying that 5.4 million have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in the past decade, compared to about 200,000 in Darfur, with another 1.5 million people displaced. According to the International Crisis Group, 1,200 people a day are dying of disease, fighting and other causes, said Mower.

There have been recent stories on the fighting there, tied to spikes in violence, says former AP reporter Bryan Mealer, but he says the fighting isn't any heavier than it has been in at numerous times in the past, and that it usually goes unnoticed. "There are reporters writing about it there, but it seems that If it doesn't have a heady lead about cannibalism or dead apes or little children being raped with machetes, it doesn't have big enough wings to make it across the Atlantic."

Mower asked why the conflict in Darfur has "captured the imagination" of the American media in a way the Congo conflict has not, even given the much larger number of deaths in the latter. Mower also points out it is the site of the largest UN peacekeeping force, so there is "a lot of U.S. taxpayer dollars," costing billions a year.

VOA correspondent Ferdinand Ferella, who covers the region, said terminology was one reason: "The word genocide has never been used for the Congo. It has been used for Rwanda; it has been used for Darfur."

He said it has not been used because it has a specific meaning, and it doesn't fit. "There has not been one single group that has been exterminated, so somehow it does not catch the attention of the international community, or only briefly, then two days after we forget about it."

There has never been an effort to understand globally what is happening in Congo and why," says Ferella.

Mealer said that Congo is an incredibly expensive and difficult place to report from, having to pay for drivers, stringers, thousands to set up Internet, which were "necessary costs." He said that is one of the reasons there are so few Western journalists or bureaus there. "There used to be a lot more bureaus and American reporters, but they have slimmed back."