Genocide, what genocide?
At last, the world has focused its attention on the catastrophe of western Sudan. A United Nations Security Council resolution has set a deadline for the end of this month for the Khartoum government to take action against the murderous Janjaweed militias. In recent weeks, stories from western Sudan have filled the newspapers, and have regularly led the television news. Any readers and viewers who are interested in foreign affairs - and many who are not - now recognise the name of Darfur.
The Sudanese denials of responsibility remain as disingenuous as they have been from the start. Eyewitness testimonies in Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports had already demonstrated the extent to which the Janjaweed and the government forces have worked hand in glove. Government planes bombed villages alongside the Janjaweed's campaign of burning and killing. More recently, HRW last month published documents confirming the direct (if still denied) links between Khartoum and the Janjaweed.
Editorial writers have rightly pointed to the need for fire prevention, not just arriving at the last moment in an attempt to douse the blaze. On this occasion, however, it was not just a matter of failing to prevent. Media and governments alike refused to take any notice of what was happening - long after the lethal conflagration had begun.
There was much editorial soul-searching in April over the failures to chronicle the Rwandan genocide that had taken place 10 years earlier, in 1994. That soul-searching was, however, accompanied by an almost complete disregard for the crimes against humanity that were being committed in Darfur at the very same time. Channel 4 News broadcast a film by the independent filmmaker Philip Cox in February - but that was in the midst of almost complete silence. The Financial Times, in its editorial on the Rwandan anniversary on April 7, made a reference to Darfur. But few others regarded the story of ongoing mass killings as worth more than the very briefest of mentions.
Even when the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, used his Rwanda anniversary speech on April 7 to address the subject, few newspapers took much notice. A colleague noted: "The international media don't seem to send reporters to cover genocides. They cover genocide anniversaries."
It was a depressing experience, to put it mildly, to talk to editors and reporters and to email our Darfur reports all around the world only to find that, although nobody denied the horror (how could they? - the facts were well documented, and UN officials had spoken out), few believed that the tragedy needed highlighting. Other human-rights and humanitarian NGOs in this country and elsewhere had identical experiences. The logic - rarely explicit, but implied - seemed to be: "If this were as important a story as you claim, others would be writing about it. Since they're not writing about it, it's not a big story."
None of this, of course was, new - especially in Africa. In 1984, the Ethiopian famine was not "news" for many months until Michael Buerk made it so, with a single powerful report for the BBC about "the closest thing to hell on earth". In 1994, the Rwandan genocide was not deemed to be news until the worst of the slaughter was already over. And now, in 2004, we have seen the process repeated, all over again.
Paradoxically, it was the attempted suppression of a story about Darfur that allowed many news editors to treat it as a serious news story for the first time. A campaign of rape, ethnic cleansing and murder did not, apparently, count as news. But the suppression in late April of an internal UN report that confirmed the known facts was news. The censors, in short, gave the subject publicity.
Just a few years ago, I was foreign-news editor on a paper that prides itself on taking foreign news seriously. I asked myself whether I would have reacted in the same way. Depressingly, I must assume that the answer is yes. When it comes to mass killings of civilians, a curious Catch-22 comes into play. If editors do not see the story on TV, they do not believe it's news; if programme makers do not read it in the newspapers, they do not believe it's news. And if politicians and officials don't see or read it except in reports thudding on to their desks from human-rights and humanitarian NGOs, then that doesn't quite count, either. "Make my phone ring," one senior US official told my colleague Alison Des Forges, when she tried to persuade the Clinton administration to take notice of the ongoing slaughter in Rwanda in early 1994. Until the story is on the front pages, the phones will not, of course, ring.
In Darfur, as in Rwanda, the failures were dire. Editors refused to think about Darfur, at a time when many thousands of lives could still have been saved. It is possible that the terrible failures of recent months may act as a wake-up call in the future. But it is difficult to feel confident of such a rosy scenario.
Steve Crawshaw is London director of Human Rights Watch and a former foreign-news editor at The Independent.