The invisible news

American news media provide too little coverage of the conflicts in Colombia, Chechnya, Burundi and Congo, and on the refugee crisis on the Chad-Sudan border, the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said in its sixth annual list of “underreported humanitarian stories”.

The US branch of MSF also cited a lack of media attention to the high death toll worldwide from malaria, the crises in North Korea and Somalia, the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire and the limited access of poor people to anti-Aids medicines.

Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of MSF-USA, said on Friday that the list focusses on US news coverage because the United States media underreport international events in general, except for security issues and the Middle East.

“I think there are economic aspects to” the limited American news coverage of many regions, he said. “The other part is the assumption, the preconception that people are not interested. I don’t believe that to be true.”

The MSF report, released this week, said brutality toward civilians, including aid workers, increased in 2003.
It also cited the predicament of Arjan Erkel, head of MSF’s Northern Caucasus mission, who has been held hostage since he was kidnapped in the Russian republic of Dagestan in August 2002.

“Such insecurity contributes to preventing journalists from providing wider coverage of some of the world’s most dangerous regions,” the report said.

On some stories, the humanitarian dimensions were overlooked, the aid group said. For example, US trade initiatives were widely reported, but the possibility that trade agreements would restrict poor people’s access to lifesaving medications drew little attention.

De Torrente said in a news release that while North Korea was in the headlines all year, “the nightmarish situation for people living there ... was nearly invisible.”

The 10 most underreported humanitarian stories of 2003, according to MSF, were:

  • Chad: More than 40 000 people fled to neighbouring Chad after a coup plunged Central Africa Republic into chaos. Fighting in western Sudan forced more than 95 000 people to seek safety in eastern Chad.

  • Chechnya: Nearly 200 000 displaced people living in tent camps and makeshift shelters in the Russian republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have been pressured to return to Chechnya.

  • Burundi: Despite a recent breakthrough in talks between the government and the main rebel group, attacks on civilians continue in the capital and rural areas, where 300 000 people have died in a decade of conflict. Neighbouring countries hosting 790 000 Burundian refugees are pressuring them to return home.

  • Colombia: Unofficial estimates put the number of people displaced in the four-decade-old conflict at three-million, many of whom live in precarious conditions in shantytowns on the outskirts of major cities where pressure from armed groups continues.

  • Democratic Republic of Congo: In the last five years, some groups estimate that three-million people have died, mostly from disease and famine indirectly caused by the conflict. While recent carnage in eastern DRC received media attention, the relentless terror endured by tens of thousands of others barely registered.

  • Malaria: Each year, malaria claims between one and two-million lives, mainly of children in Africa. An effective treatment exists, but international donors and governments continue buying medications that have become increasingly ineffective due to the parasite’s resistance.

  • Somalia: Of more than 800 000 people who fled Somalia in 1991 and 1992, as the state collapsed, almost half are still living as refugees in surrounding countries. Inside Somalia, up to 450 000 people remain displaced.

  • North Korea: Political repression and chronic food shortages have forced thousands of North Koreans to risk arrest and severe reprisals in order to seek safety and means of survival in China.

    Thousands of refugees have been forced back, and aid workers have been sent to Chinese jails.

  • Trade agreements threaten access to medicines: Nearly six million HIV-infected people worldwide urgently need antiretroviral therapy. But the United States and its powerful pharmaceutical industry have pushed for more stringent intellectual property requirements in regional trade agreements.

  • Ivory Coast: Civil war broke out in Ivory Coast in September 2002, causing displacement and a breakdown in health services, especially in the western regions of this West African nation. - Sapa-AP

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