Globe, CBC fail to tell full story of Somali famine

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Map showing territorial gains made by Al-Shabab since January 2009

Wednesday’s Globe and Mail story on the UN declaration of famine in Somalia attracted 376 comments. This one, signed JD Smith, was fairly typical: “Don’t waste your money on Somalia. Instead give your charity to something that can get better.”

That negative comment, one of the milder ones, does seem heartless given the harrowing photos of starving children that have been appearing in the papers and on television this week. Yet the perception that donating to help Somali famine victims is a waste of money is rooted in the mainstream media’s consistent misreporting of the disaster. The media variously blame drought, civil war and Islamic rebels for the thousands who are dying without referring to the long list of crimes committed against the Somali people by the United States and its allies.

For example, in Wednesday’s Globe, the story that attracted JD Smith’s comment, opened with this dramatic flourish:

Famine is raging in the failed state of Somalia.

Across the parched Horn of Africa, more than 10 million are struggling amid dying cattle and fields baked into desert with the worst drought in more than a half-century.

The rising death toll has triggered a “declaration” of a famine by the United Nations, but the announcement only pertains to southern Somalia, a largely ungoverned region that is under the sway of ruthless Islamic groups, including Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated group of jihadists.

This piece of vivid wordsmithery was from Globe reporter Paul Koring who depicts southern Somalia as a “failed state…under the sway of ruthless Islamic groups.” Later in the piece, Koring does refer to the withdrawal in the early 1990s of armed UN peacekeepers. “The armed intervention by several nations – including Canada – was intended to help cope with a famine but ended in blood and recriminations.”

After that, Somalia “lapsed into violence and chaos” and Koring adds: “The current famine is — at least partially — a legacy of that international failure to create a civil state.”

Selective history

Koring’s use of the ambiguous phrasing “blood and recriminations” glosses over the fact that Canadian involvement actually ended in scandal amid allegations of racism and evidence that Canadian soldiers engaged in torture and murder.

More seriously, Koring’s historical summary leaves out the fact that in late 2006, the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion to overthrow an Islamic government that had finally brought a measure of stability to Somalia.

In fact, the U.S. has been meddling in the strategically placed country since the late 1970s when it began giving economic and military aid to prop up the Somali dictator, Siad Barre. That was during the Cold War which today has morphed into the so-called “War on Terror.” A report by Jeremy Scahill in the current issue of The Nation, gives a detailed account of current U.S. operations in Somalia including a grim description of the secret, underground prison the CIA uses to interrogate suspected terrorists, some of whom were kidnapped in Kenya and flown to Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

“The CIA presence in Mogadishu is part of Washington’s intensifying counterterrorism focus on Somalia, which includes targeted strikes by US Special Operations forces, drone attacks and expanded surveillance operations,” Scahill writes. He adds, however, that the main focus of the failing U.S. campaign against Al-Shabab is its increased funding for the AMISOM “peacekeeping” mission undertaken by troops from the African Union.

Scahill observes that the AMISOM forces “are not conducting their mission with anything resembling surgical precision. Instead, over the past several months the AMISOM forces in Mogadishu have waged a merciless campaign of indiscriminate shelling of Shabab areas, some of which are heavily populated by civilians.”

 Chomsky on Somalia

The U.S.-led “War on Terror” has also inflicted considerable economic damage on Somalia. MIT professor Noam Chomsky points, for example, to the U.S. shut down of  the Islamic charity Al-Barakat, on the grounds that it was helping to finance terrorism. During an interview in 2009, Chomsky said American officials quietly rescinded their ban a couple of years later, but by then, the damage had been done:

It turns out that this charity was a large part of the sustenance for Somalia, a very poor country, and that the charity was funding business activities, banks, and private enterprise. It was making a substantial contribution to the economy, and, when they closed it down, it all collapsed. It was a very fragile society, so a blow like that was quite severe.

CBC also fails to put Somali famine in context

The CBC devoted considerable time Wednesday to the UN’s official declaration of famine in Somalia, but its reporting was no better than the Globe’s.  In a pair of pieces on CBC Radio’s  World at Six and TV’s The National, Curt Petrovich focused on drought, death and the urgent need for food aid, but gave no historical context for the outbreak of famine. On CBC Radio’s As It Happens, guest host Peter Armstrong interviewed E.J. Hogendoorn who works for the elite Washington-based think tank International Crisis Group. Hogendoorn said much about the shortcomings of Al-Shabab, but nothing at all about the effects of U.S. meddling in Somalia.

Overall, news coverage in the Globe and on CBC conveyed the impression that the famine was born out of a deadly combination of drought and internal politics. Once again, citizens of rich western countries were being called on to donate generously, but not to think too deeply about why Somalis continue to live out what Noam Chomsky calls “a long, ugly history.”

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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