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Distant musings

Between social media and ignorance, what is there?

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania has flooded. If this is the first time you hear the news, you might say “ok” and continue as if it never happened. “After all, there was just a huge flooding in the Philippines, which was all over the news. Dar es Salaam hasn’t even been mentioned, the flooding can’t be that bad or significant”.

Does this look insignificant?

International media (newspapers, online portals, TV) has this funny way of giving us false impressions. It’s easily assumed that what is talked about in media is important, what isn’t, isn’t. But let’s not forget media also wants readers, and they themselves make big assumptions about what people are interested in or should be reading about. Media is a powerful tool and even in the most journalistically free countries, this power is abused.

To illustrate, there is systematic under-reporting on Sub-Saharan Africa, whether good or bad news. For the common man who has little or no interest in the continent, the understanding he or she has of Africa will be limited to famines in Somalia and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Maybe someone will know that many of the fastest growing economies are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and that it’s not all war and instability. But most often Sub-Saharan Africa is put in the ‘development news’ category. Not quite there yet (wherever ‘there’ is), so presumably no news interesting enough for the busy reader. Or if a Sub-Saharan African news item does end on the front pages, it’s not foreign reporting, it’s unhelpful disaster journalism. It’s something a BBC correspondent has called: “Oh my god dying babies journalism” (quoted in Guardian). Like the famine in Somalia, much touted in the summer months in the Northern hemisphere (when there’s usually anyway a lack of other news) and already forgotten.

The focus is back on the euro crisis, anything related to the Middle East and the aftermath/continuation of Arab Spring, floods in the Philippines. As long as the numbers are big. Right now it seems that if not enough people have been killed, if the deficit doesn’t have enough zeros in it or if the UN isn’t trying to mobilize big bucks for rescue efforts, it’s not news. One could make the point that there is already an overflow of information, and no person can keep up with everything. True. But that does not make a story less significant, less worthy of thought. Quantity matters, but not for everything. Having spent parts of last year and the first half of this year in Dar es Salaam, and followed events there after leaving, it is clear much of their successes and plights never reach a wider audience.

Why the silence?

In February, an army explosives storage exploded in Dar, which I wrote more about at the time here. Had this been in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, the news would have quickly been out in international media. But the Gongo la Mboto blasts in Dar were vaguely noted,  if unnaturally more so in Finland purely because a group of 20 journalists from there happened to be visiting Tanzania and managed to find a Finnish couple stranded on the airport for an interview on the effects of the blasts on their travel plans. In reality, the blasts killed over 30 people (official numbers are questionable), displaced thousands and destroyed homes and property on a large radius. Surely this is significant, wherever it happens.

In September, a passenger ship sunk off the coast of Zanzibar. No one knows the exact numbers as no list of passengers existed, but estimates of over 500 people drowned and many others missing have circulated. Close to the death toll of MS Estonia, over half of the death toll of the Titanic. Surely this is significant.

Now, for the past few days, Dar has been flooding. According to the Tanzanian Meteorological Institute, the downpour has been the heaviest since 1954. Latest figures place deaths at over 20, injuries at over 60, and displaced and affected at over 4000. Significant enough?

Now how did I find out? Certainly not from any news agencies outside Tanzania, who were more than slow in reacting, if at all. Was it not for social media, I wouldn’t have known. Twitter is the source of most of my information on Dar now that I’m not there, it’s quick, up-to-date and illustrative, though can for the most part directly only reach the small percentage of the population that has (more or less constant) access to the internet. The hashtag #DarFloods has been keeping me and everyone else informed, and prompted even President Kikwete to tweet and ask to raise awareness.  As one tweeter noted:

But what does this say about our international community? Isn’t there anything between social media and ignorance? Natural disasters are becoming more and more common, and often hit developing countries hardest. While the (serious, no question about it) Philippine floods gain all the media attention and has sparked the UN to mobilise USD 28 million in rescue funds, Tanzanians are left to fight their own fight, with the Clouds FM radio presenter taking a deep breath, and sighing tutasonga mbele (‘we will move forward’).

Having written this post, I noticed another blog, Encountering Urbanization, has also written on the same topic in the post Dar es Salaam: Underwater and Underreported, including more details on the flood disaster in Dar. But the question remains, why the silence? For media to pick sides on which disaster to report on, and spurring differential international responses to essentially same tragedies, is an offense and a shame.

Borrowing from the above-mentioned blog post on Dar: “A lot of people have lost everything. Please think of them during the holiday season and after.”

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