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Home > Publications > Quill > Speak for the silent


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Monday, August 25, 2008
Speak for the silent

Georgianne Nienaber

If 6 million people were killed or simply vanished off the face of the Earth, you might expect an immediate international outcry, in-depth analysis of this humanitarian catastrophe. You’d expect story to be on the front page of every newspaper and magazine in the world. You’d expect broadcast and photojournalists to take every opportunity to document this story.

This story has already happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there has been no such outcry. This atrocity is surrounded by silence.

Responsible journalists have a duty to not only explore the reasons behind this loss of life, but to also question the “why” behind the lack of journalistic diligence and honesty in covering what is happening in the Congo today.

According to Human Rights Watch, up to

1.1 million people are displaced in North and South Kivu provinces and living in unspeakable conditions in refugee camps. It is estimated 1,200 people die every day, and it could be stopped tomorrow with enough international will.

The story of the 6 million dead begins in 1996, when Rwanda invaded eastern Congo (then Zaire) after the horrific events of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. About 1.2 million Rwandese Hutus fled to Kivu province, which was inhabited by ethnic Tutsis. A civil war ensued in 1996, pitting Zairean Tutsis against the pro-Hutu army of Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

At the same time, Laurent Kabila led a rebellion against Seko, becoming a de facto ally with neighboring Rwanda. By 1998, former allies Rwanda and Uganda turned against Kabila. Ten years later, half of the Congo is controlled by an alphabet soup of competing militias and proxy armies. As always, it’s the civilians who suffer most in war, while preventable diseases, malnutrition, rape and heinous atrocities complete the Grim Reaper’s harvest.

The U.N. has called the Congolese conflict the greatest loss of human life and the deadliest conflict since World War II. The Security Council has condemned the illegal exploitation of natural resources and wealth of the Congo. Still, the dead have no voice and silence surrounds this story.

To establish the “why” for this silence, one must look at the strategic interests of the United States and the EU in this region. Rwanda and Uganda are allies of the United States. Freedom of the press does not exist in these countries, and for journalists to speak out on the truths behind multinational strategic and resource interests is to jeopardize journalists’ ability to function in the open in these countries. In Rwanda, the government is pondering a new penal code and press law that would jail journalists “undermining” the Rwandan or any other head of state.

Reporters Without Borders has called Rwandan President Paul Kagame one of the world’s “Predators of Press Freedom.”

Independent journalists traveling alone in the Congo face even greater challenges and dangers in a desolate “no man’s land” with no rule of law. You can be picked up and detained on any trumped-up charge. I know. It happened to me in January 2007.

Do I fear going back and being arrested again for absolutely no reason? Of course. Has this severely limited my ability to continue my research? The answer is obvious. Can I forget what I have seen there? No.

Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale, who has worked in the Congo for eight years, told the UK Independent, “If journalists aren’t writing about it, or editors won’t run the stories, they are just as guilty as the warlords.”

Maurice Carney of the U.S.-based organization Friends of the Congo puts it another way: If more independent journalists could have access to this humanitarian crisis, Carney thinks the sheer scope of it all would provoke an outpouring of analysis.

To that end, Friends of the Congo has joined forces with the online progressive news outlet OpEdNews and any other interested community of journalists to organize an independent media trip to the Congo.

The objective is to secure the necessary resources for a delegation of 10 independent journalists to travel to the Congo to bring attention and perspective to the conflict. No one has done this before.

Hopefully this delegation will “provide an alternative prism through which the global community views the Congo in the hopes of stimulating a response that will lead to more being done to resolve the Congo crisis,” Carney said.

The range of issues is exponential in scope and includes the rape of 200,000 women, child labor and sexual exploitation, stolen resources, smuggling and endangered species threats.

I challenge anyone who reads this column to enjoy a good night’s sleep after seeing what there is to see and hearing what there is to hear in the Congo.

Anneke van Woudenberg, the Congo specialist for Human Rights Watch, spoke to us from the Congo last week and urged us to pursue this idea.

“Things have gotten worse in the last few months,” she said. “We desperately need firsthand reports of what is happening here.”

Anyone who has the ability to form thoughts into words and who can travel to this region has the moral duty to do so.

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