Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is the media over-publicizing piracy?

My colleague EagleSpeak recently posted a piece highlighting comments made by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight, in which he said that the piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden is "over publicized". By this, the former commander of Combined Task Force 151 (the international counterpiracy operation in the region) was referring to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which thousands of people have been killed and injured and millions more affected by the ongoing fighting, situations that McKnight presumably feels merits more attention from the media and the general public than some Somali pirates harassing passing vessels. (You can read the source of EagleSpeak's post at Defence by clicking here.)

Military commanders, especially retired ones, often make comments critical of how the media has been covering events in war zones - or elsewhere - and McKnight's thoughts are not without some merit. After all, until the Maersk Alabama was attacked earlier this year, many North Americans cared little about the situation off the Horn of Africa (HoA). And quite often the media will glom onto something currently considered "sexy" in the hopes of attracting an audience, only to discard any serious follow-through because they've moved on to the next item of interest. To a degree, it's the ADD nature of news gathering and the audience who consumes the output: One moment it's troop surges or economy and the next it's Tiger Williams late night driving abilities. And, in the face of little real, factual information gleaned from on-the-ground investigation - something which is becoming rarer and rarer - you often end up with superfluous pieces that are merely trying to fill a void. It's something I commented upon earlier this year regarding the hijacking of the Arctic Sea incident in European waters.

But is the scourge of piracy off the HoA being over-hyped by the media? I don't think so. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are all different situations, each replete with its own history and different levels of instability. My issue with McKnight's comments are that they seem to infer a quantitative differentiation between Somali piracy and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as though the number of casualties or personnel involved automatically make one theater of operations more important than another.

It's not about a body count and it's not about the numbers. Dealing with piracy and dealing with Somalia is about national and international obligations. It's about reminding people, as EagleSpeak rightly points out in his own post, that there are several hundred people currently being held hostage by Somali pirate gangs, people whose lives are at risk. The same can not be said about Iraq or Afghanistan - there are not hundreds of foreigners being held captive in those places by insurgents. In fact, I dare say that if there were so many foreign hostages being in either of those countries, there would be a greater sense of outrage by many people. (And, yes, I know that many citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan are facing dire threats, but I am here focusing on the impact of piracy operations on mariners.)

Dealing with the problem of piracy off the HoA is also fundamentally about dealing with Somalia and the eight million people trying to survive there, people who have been forgotten and written off by most nations for the better part of two decades, to say nothing of the many millions more who live in the surrounding regions. If that's not as worthy of media interest as the plight of the Afghan or Iraqi people, then what else is? An "Octo-Mom"?

And, by the way, I would also mention that McKnight's comments about over-publicizing the issue were not, in fact, widely reported in the media.

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