Culture | Pirating what’s important

A look into the media’s misguided priorities when addressing Somalia

Disney’s The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise grossed over $2.79 billion worldwide. Judging from this success, it’s safe to assume that the subject of piracy grabs people’s attention. Perhaps this is the reason why, since April 4, 2008, when Somali pirates hijacked a French-owned luxury yacht, newsstands worldwide have been chalk full of reports of piracy off the coast of Somalia, arguably the world’s most comprehensively failed state.
After reluctantly accepting the fact that piracy is still alive and well, most people’s former apathy towards a funny sounding ‘nation-state’ in the Horn of Africa is transmuted into curiosity – hopefully mixed with a tincture of indignation. This curiosity impels them to look into how this unfamiliar country could allow such a barbaric thing to occur in the 21st century. In utter disbelief, they discover that Somalia is among the poorest nations in the world. Somalia is beset with drought and famine, plagued with religious conflict and ongoing civil war, inundated with human rights abuses, and beleaguered by maniacal fanatics that pledge allegiance not to a flag, but to the hateful Islamist cults of al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. They also learn that the country has essentially been in a state of anarchy for two decades.

Their now-piqued consternation begs another question: Why have I not heard more of Somalia’s dire situation before this pirate-mania began? A valid question.

Somalia’s descent into lawlessness began in 1991 with the collapse of Siad Barre’s government. Twenty years later, anarchy remains.

The current civil war involves many factions vying for power, the main conflict being between the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and their allied African Union forces (referred to as the “African Union Mission in Somalia” or AMISOM) on the one hand, and various insurgent groups on the other, most prominently the al-Qaeda-linked group, al-Shabaab.

Human Rights Watch notes that throughout this conflict there have been appalling violations of human rights by all factions. TFG forces have raped and pillaged their own people. Insurgent groups have indiscriminately attacked civilians, journalists, and aid workers. Amnesty International has also reported a case in the city of Kismayo, where the ruling Islamist group was informed of the rape of a 13 year-old girl, and proceeded to detain the girl and accuse her of adultery. She was stoned to death for breaching Islamic law.

The main Islamic group, the Shabaab militia, is so infuriatingly intransigent that, even faced with the tragic fact that the current famine ravaging Somalia has killed an estimated 29,000 children, they continue to refuse any kind of humanitarian aid from entering into their area of control. The Economist’s East African correspondent states that “because that area is controlled by hard-line elements of the Shabaab militia, access even to Islamic relief charities has not yet been allowed.” This means that children have essentially been labeled as expendable.

Why, you ask? “Many Shabaab commanders [assert that] history will judge them not by their compassion but by their ascendancy over unbelievers,” another Economist correspondent explains. Al-Shabaab’s strategic advantage thus lies in their brazenly evil willingness to kill innocent civilians, in order to triumph over the so-called infidels. This type of dogmatic thinking truly epitomizes what Christopher Hitchens notoriously calls “Fascism with an Islamic face.”

What’s worse, if such a degree of inhumanity is possible, is that the criminals who commit these heinous offenses go unpunished due to the TFG’s inability to establish control. This was noted by the UN Secretary General who affirmed, “the lack of accountability, for past and current crimes, reinforces a sense of impunity, and further fuels conflict.”

Did anyone hear about these many outrages? No. But a French luxury yacht being commandeered by pirates, now that’s a story worth writing about!
Even news of progress, a rare occurrence in Somalia, failed to take attention away from the subject of piracy. On August 5, the pro-government forces won back control over Mogadishu, the capital. The Shabaab insurgents remaining in the war-torn city scattered to the countryside. But this significant step towards the cessation of the two-decade long civil war was barely mentioned in the international press.

Still, while the TFG was quick to tout the horn of victory after the recapture of Mogadishu, many obstacles remain in the way of peace and stability. AMISOM, the allied AU force, noted that the withdrawal of al-Shabaab to the hinterland only changes the dynamics of the civil conflict – it is now likely to become a guerrilla war with a potential return to “warlordism.”

Experts predict that al-Shabaab’s new strategy will include deploying snipers and bombers to the capital, continuing to refuse humanitarian aid, and, after time passes and enough TV and photographic images of starving Somalis leak out, permiting aid organized strictly by Muslim agencies to enter their areas of control – only in exchange for money, which will be used to fuel their insurgency.
With civil war and one of the worst famines of the century occurring simultaneously, Somalia has not received this much international attention since the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3 and 4, 1993, in which 19 American soldiers were killed. Again, the media didn’t so much report on the mass atrocities in Somalia as it did on the apparently more pertinent issue: the death of 19 Americans. The Battle of Mogadishu also inspired the 2001 blockbuster film, Black Hawk Down, which grossed $173 million at the box office. Perhaps the West should thank Somalia for the entertainment they have provided us by not merely reporting on this country when profit-hungry news conglomerates believe it will sell. Instead, the international media should extend a show of humanity to the citizens of Somalia – humanity that al-Shabaab and other parties to the conflict have so dismally failed to demonstrate. The best way to deliver a desperate dose of the humane is to continually report on the crisis’s setbacks and on its progress, keeping the world up to date on pressing issues, which will slowly wash away our ignorance on Somalia’s internal chaos.

Has the world come to view these tragic stories of discord, death, and deprivation from Sub-Saharan Africa as quotidian? Is our moral fibre so lacking that the only subject from this continent that grabs our attention is Johnny Depp-like piracy? After all, the subject of piracy has sold papers at newsstands just as it sold tickets at the box office.

Let us hope that we have not grown indifferent to human suffering. Let us hope that Somalia’s crisis of civil war, Islamofascism, and famine inspires concerned global citizens to collectively call for action. A display of moral outrage by the international community will demonstrate to the Somali people that they are not forgotten, and will show journalists that sometimes their job is to tell the world exactly what it does not want to hear.