Under-reported conflicts seen affecting millions in 2015

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 29, 2015 1:09 PM

By Alex Whiting

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - While wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine make headlines in the West, around 30 other conflicts receive little press coverage, and the resulting lack of pressure for change could have serious implications for millions of people, experts say.

Civil wars in Sudan's western Darfur region and its southern states have almost disappeared from the media despite affecting huge numbers and displacing 2.4 million people in Darfur alone.

Neighboring South Sudan is also an overlooked crisis that urgently needs attention, said Jean-Marie Guehenno, president of Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, which is currently tracking more than 30 conflicts globally.

South Sudan ranked alongside Afghanistan and Syria last year as the three least peaceful countries in the world in an annual index compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

"The horrific violence you still see in South Sudan is because there is no pressure from public opinion," Guehenno told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The civil war there is entering its second year, bringing the world's newest country to the brink of bankruptcy and famine as violence has displaced at least 1.9 million of the nation's 11 million people and killed more than 10,000.

Guehenno said that if South Sudan had more exposure in the Western media, measures like an arms embargo and action to cut the funding of the war could be put in place, and there would be some pressure on the U.N. Security Council.

"But it remains a bit below the radar, except when there is a major clash," he said.

FIGHTING FROM NIGERIA TO DRC

Nigeria is another country where underreporting of internal conflicts is "potentially very serious."

Although attacks by Boko Haram Islamist militants get some coverage, tensions elsewhere do not. If President Goodluck Jonathan loses the election in February, tensions in the oil-rich Niger Delta could flare up, Guehenno said.

"If there's violence in the period following the elections, then suddenly this will be headline news because of the importance of Nigeria in Africa. But it would be better if these issues were addressed now rather than tomorrow," he said.

The number of conflicts in the world has been relatively stable over the last decade, ranging between 31 and 37, but the number of refugees fleeing fighting by mid-2014 had risen to its highest level since 1996.

Several wars barely make it into the western press.

Fighting in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo displaced some 770,000 people in 2014, bringing the total number of displaced to about 2.7 million in a country of 68 million people. More than 20 armed groups are operating in just one province, North Kivu.

Conflicts are also under way in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic and Pakistan. Afghanistan is getting less attention since the departure of many foreign troops.

Researchers say it is not necessarily the size of the conflict that attracts greater media attention.

Virgil Hawkins, associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy at Osaka University in Japan, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict receives significant media coverage although the death toll is small compared with Congo.

Hawkins compared the mass coverage given earlier this month to the Islamist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris with the relative silence over a series of mass killings by Boko Haram in Nigeria at around the same time.

"The real reasons for the differences in the coverage are less related to what atrocities were perpetrated, and more related to where, and against who, the atrocities were perpetrated," he wrote in a blog.

There are many relatively small, slow-burning conflicts in countries like India, Thailand, Russia, Turkey, Myanmar and Ethiopia but they should not be ignored, he said.

Small-scale conflicts often become major ones because they connect to a broader issue, Guehenno said.

For years nobody paid much attention to small conflicts in northern Mali, until they became an opportunity for a transnational jihadist movement to set up bases.

"Suddenly they become a strategic issue," Guehenno said.

"It's very difficult for political leadership ... to generate political momentum on issues where in Western countries there's not much media interest," he said. "It's when people begin to get killed that there's mobilization."

(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Alisa Tang and Tim Pearce)