Sunday, February 12, 2006

Kristof on Darfur; and on journalism by example

Today's NYT column by Nicholas Kristof about Darfur, which includes photojournalism by Darfur genocide survivors themselves, is another example of the kind of reporting that far more reporters ought to be doing, or at least aspiring to do.

This space is not about to become a mere alert service regarding good New York Times columns. But today's Kristof column, and even more so the other one by him that was posted here on Tues., Feb. 7 (see three posts below this one), are not just worth viewing because of the particular topic they cover -- though that would be enough, given their focus on US inaction in the face of the ongoing genocide in Sudan. NOTE:The Tues. Feb. 7 posting below, singing Kristof's praises, was apparently seen by the praise-ee himself; it elicited a nice thank you note.

These columns are also striking because they show so clearly what is lacking in reports by most journalists. It isn't just the descriptions of tragedy in Darfur that could and should be treated as Kristof treats them: personalizing them, humanizing them, making them more powerful and effective by weaving in the names and stories of individuals profoundly affected by the articles' topics.

That kind of journalism takes more work, and it's more expensive because it can't be done from one's desk, or through a taxi trip to a nearby press conference -- but it can and should be done far more often when it comes to any number of topics, ranging from trade policy to education reform, from Muslim anger to Mexican politics. We see plenty of vapid, one-liner quotes, but not enough real interviews, real profiles, woven into larger stories. As the Feb. 7 column below points out, it takes guts and drive for a journalist to risk life and limb, traveling into rural areas where humanitarian crises are occurring, to talk directly with the women and children themselves who survived the violence so far.

Many of the reporters who have traveled to Iraq are motivated, in part, by the fact that war coverage is a major boost to one's career (and rightly so: it boosts people's careers for good reason because it's so dangerous but valuable). Many of those reporters are also passionately motivated to help cover a war that desperately needs better coverage. Both the reporters in Iraq and the ones like Kristof who go to other dangerous areas are courageous; what's admirable about Kristof's choice to go to Darfur is that it's just not a hot-button topic in newsrooms right now. He's trying to make it so.

Again, since many Cyberpols blog followers don't have subscriptions to the New York Times and therefore can't view its Op-Ed columns, either in hard copy or online, today's Kristof column is copied for our readers' benefit, via the headline-link above or viewable in the first comment on this posting.

2 Thoughts:

Blogger Bspot said...

Disposable Cameras for Disposable People

NYT Op-Ed: February 12, 2006

Meet some of the disposable people of Darfur, the heirs of the disposable Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans and Bosnians of past genocides. Look carefully, for several hundred thousand people like these have already been slaughtered in Darfur in western Sudan — and the lives of two million more are in our hands.

On my fifth and last trip to Darfur, in November, I smuggled in 20 disposable cameras to hand out to these disposable people. While taking photos without a permit is illegal in Sudan, two aid groups agreed to distribute the cameras, teach the genocide survivors how to use them, and then send me the pictures (for their own protection, I'm not naming those aid groups).

Many of the resulting photos were unusable, for those shooting the pictures had mostly never held a camera before. Many of them were living until recently in thatch-roof mud huts, and their first direct encounter with the modern world came when Sudanese military aircraft strafed their villages.

The photos were taken in makeshift camps near the town of Zalingei where survivors have lived since fleeing their villages. Taking a photo more publicly might have led to an arrest or a beating. These scenes reflect the banality of waiting — for food, for protection, for death. In short, such photos are a bit like those from the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940's.

The photo in the upper left shows Assim, 5, Asiel, 3, and Salma, almost 2; Assim says he misses the village trees he used to climb, for in the camps the trees have all been cut for firewood. The photo in the upper right shows a man named Adam in his tailor "shop."

The photo in the lower left shows Aisha and Fatima, preparing their "stove." And in the lower right is Halima, a 27-year-old widow whose husband and brother were murdered when the government-supported janjaweed militia attacked her village. An aid group helps her and other women make biscuits and cheese to sell in local markets — so they won't have to venture out of the camps and risk rape by the janjaweed.

Granted, people like these die all the time in Africa of malaria or AIDS. And it's true that it's probably as wrenching for a parent to lose a child to malaria as to a machete. But when a government deliberately slaughters people because of their tribe or skin color, then that is a special affront to the bonds of humanity and creates a particular obligation to respond. Nothing rips more at the common fabric of humanity than genocide — and the only way to assert our own humanity is to stand up to it.

President Bush is doing more about Darfur than most other leaders, but that's not saying much. The French are being particularly unhelpful, while other Europeans (including, alas, Tony Blair) seem to wonder whether it's really worth the expense to save people from genocide. Muslim countries are silent about the slaughter of Darfur's Muslims, while China disgraces itself by protecting Sudan in the United Nations and underwriting the genocide with trade. Still, even Mr. Bush is taking only baby steps.

Here are some grown-up steps Mr. Bush could take: He could enforce a no-fly zone to stop air attacks on civilians in Darfur, lobby Arab leaders to become involved, call President Hu Jintao and ask China to stop protecting Sudan, invite Darfur refugees to a photo op at the White House, attend a coming donor conference for Darfur, visit Darfur or the refugee camps next door in Chad, push France and other allies for a NATO bridging force to provide protection until United Nations troops arrive, offer to support the United Nations force with American military airlift and logistical support (though not ground troops, which would help Sudan's hard-liners by allowing them to claim that the United States was starting a new invasion of the Arab world), make a major speech about Darfur, and arrange for Colin Powell to be appointed a United Nations special envoy to seek peace among Darfur's tribal sheiks.

With Mr. Bush saying little about Darfur, presidential leadership on Darfur is coming from ... Slovenia. The Slovenian president, Janez Drnovsek, has emerged as one of the few leaders who are actually organizing an international effort to stop the genocide.

"You ask, Why Slovenia?" he told me. "I can ask, Why not Slovenia?"

Mr. Drnovsek came to the United States recently to talk about Darfur with Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and Chinese officials. But he says that President Bush declined to see him; if Mr. Bush were more serious about Darfur, he would be hailing Slovenia's leadership — indeed, emulating it.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush spoke movingly at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. I hope he'll look at these photos and ruminate on an observation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Man's inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad, it is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good."

Sunday, February 12, 2006 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Demotiki said...

I just saw a BBC documentary called "Global Dimming." They claimed that particles suspended in the air from industrial smokestacks has reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth by nearly 10%. Not only does this mask the true dangers of global warming, but there is strong evidence that it caused changes in African rainfall and lead to the deaths of millions of Ethopians.

When I was in Benin West Africa with the Peace Corps I studied the local agricultural systems. Older people all told me that there were two rainy seasons and two crop cycles. Younger people all told me that there was but one season. Looking at the rainfall records at an agricultural research station started in 1903 by the French, I learned that there had once been two seasons, but that in the 1970s the small rainy season had stopped. Needless to say, losing half of your agricultural production isn't a good thing when you are living from hand to mouth. We are killing millions with our oil addiction. Time to get on the methadone of nuclear or go wind.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006 9:45:00 AM  

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