Why is Darfur a Hidden Story?


September 17 was Global Day for Darfur, a day of worldwide demonstrations that called for swift and decisive action to be taken in Darfur to stop what is one of the worst humanitarian crises since Rwanda.

Demonstrations were led by celebrities such as Mia Farrow, Cate Blanchett and Elle McPherson. However, the initiative was mentioned in the Australian  press just  five times and it didn’t make the prime time news.

The reason? A plane crashed in Phuket, Thailand, the same day killing 90 people. Thirty news articles were written about the tragedy Australia-wide that day and it was the leading news story on channels Seven, Nine and Ten.

Darfur, a region in Western Sudan, Africa, has been engulfed in a civil war not unlike that in Rwanda in the early 1990s.

The conflict erupted in February 2003 when the Sudanese Liberation Army attacked government forces and infrastructure in Darfur. The motivation for the initial attacks was government neglect and a lack of development. The Sudanese Government responded with troops and by backing militias, known collectively as the Janjaweed. To date more than 200,000 people have been killed, 2.5 million have been displaced and more than 350,000 people face starvation and sickness because aid cannot reach them.

Yet the Australian public know very little about the current crisis in Darfur.

‘Nope, never heard of Darfur, which worries me quite a lot,’ says Annette Lin, a first year University of Technology, Sydney student who responded to an online survey. ‘Shouldn’t somebody be raising awareness or something? Didn’t they learn from Rwanda?’

The Darfur Australian Network (DAN) conducted a pilot study of 41 Victorians aged 18 years and above. Unprompted, only one in four people had ever heard of Darfur or the crisis there.

The issue has still not captured significant media attention. Last month a total of 35 news articles were written Australia-wide about Darfur. Compare this to the 20 articles written in one week about Kevin Rudd’s visit to a New York strip bar and things gain some perspective.

Why does Kevin Rudd’s visit to a strip bar get more coverage in the Australian press then the worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda?

Peter Cochrine, Foreign Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald says, ‘As with all stories, various factors come into daily play: the amount of space allocated to international news, competing issues, perceived reader fatigue and the availability of quality copy from a particular region.’

‘It needs to be unique content that’s not from the wire agencies’, Cochrine says. And this means stories from on the ground, from journalists, aid workers and refugees. ‘We don’t want to bore the readers we have to make sure we engage them emotionally and intellectually.’

With long running, dangerous crises like Darfur, getting fresh information isn’t easy.

Last year 98 journalists were killed in war zones. ‘Many governments are not pro-journo, usually because they are trying to hide things,’ Cochrine says. ‘When I want to send journos into war zones I have to think and take into account everything that may happen. [I have to] take into account the high risk factor and think: what can I really get from this story?’

Newspaper editors speak of ‘reader fatigue’. The longer the crisis the less they believe people want to read about it. Cochrine gives the example of the Iraq war. ‘This is a hard story to sell because nothing new has happened there for the past few years. For war to reach the pages there needs to be major incremental developments within the crisis before it’s going to get coverage.’

Dr Robert Glasser, CEO of CARE Australia, thinks there is an element of truth in reader fatigue but believes it depends on the nature of the coverage, what’s being reported and how it’s being reported.

CARE Australia conducted a study on how people respond to emergencies. ‘People were given three images,’ says Glasser. ‘One was of a small girl called Mimi, with a caption saying please help Mimi she has no home or food. The second image was of 100,000 people with a caption asking for donations to help all these people. The third image was of Mimi, three other orphans and 100,000 people. The image that got most response was the one of just Mimi.’

‘We can connect to Mimi as humans we know we can help her because she is just one person. Put thousands of people dying from genocide in front of us and although we feel sad, we think: there are just too many, I can’t make a difference. And so we don’t.’

If journalists can’t gain access to a crisis to get new news, they try to get stories from people coming out of it. Aid workers are often interviewed for this reason. Many, however, can’t go on the record.

It is important that NGOs are seen as neutral. If aid agencies are seen to be talking about a government, a rebel group or any party within a crisis in a negative light, it can risk the NGO’s chances of returning to the crisis to help further, or at a worst, put the aid workers still on the ground at risk.

Rebecca Milgrom, who works for DAN, says ‘[The media] don’t publish stories about Darfur because people don’t care about the situation and yet the Australian public’s apathy, in my opinion, is a simple reflection of their lack of knowledge about Darfur.’

Perhaps it is a lack of media coverage, perhaps people don’t care enough because we are saturated in war, perhaps news outlets are deciding, wrongly, what the Australian public want to hear.

Whatever the reason, one university student sums it up by asking a question we should all be asking: ‘How can genocide not be news?’  

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