No32 August 1998.6
To an ever-increasing extent, modern wars are being fought through the media. The development of the Global Village means that belligerents of every colour are now conducting their quarrels through unscrupulous use of the great press agencies and the internet. Journalists are invited to a press conference as if it were a cocktail party. No matter whether the fare provided is true or false, authentic or fraudulent. What counts is not the reality but the image, fashioned according to the interests of the host.
Playing to the gallery: this is the essential strategy. The aim is only to get one's pictures on to the television screens, to get one's voice heard. What happens off-screen is irrelevant.
The fact is however that even the most sensational pictures lose their impact in the end. People grow tired of continual scenes of bloodshed and of starving children. Tribal warfare in distant lands becomes a bore, nothing to do with me.
"Canadian Sister Kidnapped in Rwanda," ran a recent newspaper headline. Three Sisters of Saint Chrétienne had disappeared at Byumba, in the north of Rwanda. Two weeks later it was, "Two Belgian White Fathers Kidnapped," this time near Ruhengeri. At the beginning of August it was the turn of another White Father, a Canadian, Richard Dessureault, again in Rwanda.
Some days later, these victims were back in their parishes. What was the point of these kidnappings? What had happened?
The point was simply that dissident rebels wished to bring their existence to the attention of the international media. Purely local killings had ceased to be interesting. War as such had become commonplace. Something with a wider appeal was needed if the war was not to be forgotten.
Journalists have rules for retaining the interest of their public. Far-off conflicts must have some local interest, or some peculiar characteristic to give them a spice of novelty. The search is always for local relevance and originality, for something new and topical. Distant people and events will not keep the attention of the reader or viewer.
This "law of immediate relevance" means that Africa has little appeal to the great North American public. It is far away, and its wars are like some science-fiction war of the planets, light-years away from the concerns of the average Western consumer.
Those who wage modern wars understand very well the principles on which the media operate, and their aim is to attract the attention of the world, as children seek to wake up their sleeping parents. They make a big noise, they kidnap foreigners, they carry out mass killings, all for the sake of publicity. Blood, with sex and sport, is a key word for the modern media. People want blood, and they must therefore have it.
If the first pleas for world attention are disregarded, tactics change. When kidnappings are no longer enough to gain publicity, murders are provided instead. We may think of all the missionaries assassinated over recent years: 21 in 1994, 32 in 1995, 46 in 1996, 28 in 1997, 10 during the first four months of 1998. It is an endless cycle of violence.
How can we respond to this situation?
In the first place we may not approve of this media policy. When editors make sensationalism their priority, instead of seeking to promote dialogue and reconciliation, they must be regarded as partly responsible for the growth of violence. In the long run of course, when the continual presentation of violent conflict produces public boredom and fatigue, the media themselves are the losers. They would surely do better to win an enduring name for themselves by seeking ways towards peace, however unpromising such efforts may seem.
As for the conflicting parties themselves, everyone recognizes that responding to violence by counter-violence only prolongs a vicious spiral which may truly be described as diabolical.
All this does not mean that one may simply ignore situations of violence. To wash one's hands of other people's miseries is to show a criminal disregard of human solidarity. The only proper response to violence however is not more violence, which can only increase hatred and injustice, but a genuine strength of mind and heart which produces right thinking and effective action for peace. Fulness of life can be found only by those who are prepared to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the sake of peace.
A Canadian Sister who had been taken prisoner by rebels in Rwanda was interviewed by journalists eager for "a story" which they could sell to their public. She proved a great disappointment when she described her experiences as "positive".
Missionaries who are kidnapped or murdered have chosen to respond to violence with the power of love. They seek to unite rather than to divide, and they are prepared to support their option at the cost of their own personal interests and even of their lives. They remember the words of their Master: "No one takes my life away. I give it of myself."
Only in the Cross can be found the strength of soul which is the proper human response to violence. There is no other way of breaking the vicious circle.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.