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Congo Holds Its Breath, the Media Does Not

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CONGO
Piet Suess, Eastern Congo Initiative

You could be forgiven for thinking that the elections in Egypt are the only elections happening in Autumn 2011 - such is the blanket media coverage accorded to it over the other elections taking place around the world. However, other elections are taking place. Horrific violence plagued Nicaragua's elections amidst widespread reports of fraud, Tunisia quietly held elections largely free of clashes or manipulation and Côte d'Ivoire is preparing to hold legislative elections one year after Laurent Gbagbo's tardy departure made front page news around the world.

However, arguably the most regionally significant election on the African continent has barely made a blip on the mainstream media radar - the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC's presidential elections are only the second to be held since the 2002 Pretoria and Luanda Agreements and the 71 million people who call the DRC home are understandably fearful of what outcome the latest polls will bring.

Election day itself saw polling stations attacked in Lubumbashi, with local radio reporting over 100 polling stations burned down country-wide. At least 19 people have been killed so far and there are fears that this number could significantly grow after the results are announced on 6 December. The decision by the electoral commission (CENI) to announce some results prior to that date has only served to heighten speculation, with supporters on both sides claiming victory by razor thin margins. SMS communications have been cut off across the country and foreign embassies are either sending their staff home or limiting their movement. India recently pulled out all of its military helicopters from the country, leaving the UN Mission (MONUSCO) without means to rapidly respond to violent flare ups around the country. None of this augurs well.

Rumour is part and parcel of electoral politics in sub-Saharan Africa, but this election has shown how little faith many Congolese have in the country's ability to hold an openly contested election - ranging from rumours of disappearing ink to rumours that extra ballots flown in from South Africa had already been marked for incumbent President Kabila.

Talking to friends on the ground observing the elections, what has struck me most is that many Congolese have said they see this elections only as an opportunity for things to get worse rather than better (some citing fears of a repeat of Côte d'Ivoire). People fear that by voting for the wrong candidate they will bring violence to their own doorstep if the person they vote for does not win (or even if they do). The opposition's failure to unite behind a single candidate has created a situation where the results between Kabila and his nearest rival Tshisekedi look set to be extremely close. If this is the case, the election may well be determined by voter turnout - which still has not been officially reported. All of these factors make the election what used simply to be called 'news.'

The DRC conflict and social factors driving the outcome of this election are undoubtedly complex, but that does not mean the media should turn away from an electoral event of such huge significance. The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts could hardly be described as simple, yet at their peak garnered plenty of interest. Ignoring the election in DRC while touting Egypt as some huge success story of modern democracy sends a terrible message that we just don't care about sub-Saharan Africa. How quickly the media forget that one minute's intervention success story (Libya) can turn into a more complex situation that drags on for months. Egypt's transition is sure to take just as long as any other conflict because that's how conflict transitions work - and yet people 'aren't interested' in hearing about DRC any more because it is old news.

Should violence erupt following the announcement of results only then will the international media clamour to bring images of 'Africa at war' to living rooms around the world. No back story, no lead-in and most of all no continuity of reporting between cataclysms. People don't understand the DRC conflict because news producers have done a terrible job of covering it - due to some bizarre relativistic metric of how important they believe the public rank certain news events. By pandering to this weak notion, reporting has become that of the lowest common denominator. I sometimes wonder if an event like the fall of the Berlin wall happened today whether many networks would cut away from the finale of Survivor or X Factor unless they could find a few shots of scantily clad people celebrating.

Journalists should strive to hold a mirror up to the world as it really is regardless of whether people want to see it or not. Right now, they are ignoring the DRC for snappy sound bites about the Arab Spring/Winter. Regardless of the result in the DRC, placing all parties under the spotlight of the international media before the result may be one of the only ways the international community can help protect the ordinary Congolese people. It might also remind some news producers why they got into the business in the first place.

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