By Karthik Shankar:
Not all terrorist attacks are equal. The brutal massacre in Kenya’s Garissa University last Thursday in which 148 people died, most of them students, is proof that when it comes to the media, some lives matter more than others. The story has all the elements that make up an internet age sensation – a university attack, young people in harm’s way, a notorious terror outfit, and the ramifications of a country’s foreign policy on its innocent civilians. So why wasn’t there more international furore or record trending hashtags on Twitter. Because, there’s one way in which this attack differed from Charlie Hebdo or the Elliott Rodger killings – the victims were Africans, not ‘Westerners‘.
What else explains the fact that on the day of the attack, the gold standard for world media – The New York Times – had a story involving Iran negotiations as the top story on the international page? Is terrorism an issue only when it affects people belonging to a certain geographical space? There’s also a stark difference in the number of stories done, between the university attack and the Charlie Hebdo one. The International New York Times site has 248 results for the former as compared to not less than 863 for the latter. Admittedly the Kenya attack is more recent, but I doubt there will be incessant coverage of it in the following weeks, which frame the attack as a collective assault on the world’s freedoms as opposed to a threat affecting a couple of millions in Kenya and Somalia.
The march after the Charlie Hebdo attacks saw 3.7 million people participate and 40 world leaders attending. Everyone from David Cameron to Angela Merkel joined hands with Francois Hollande to oppose the attack on free speech. Why isn’t there a similar show of solidarity with Kenya? Is it because we are so accustomed to conflicts in Africa, that all it does is become part of a statistic? There’s a reason #147notjustanumber is trending on Twitter. The tweets commemorate the slain students by sharing details of their lives. Some like Selpher Wandia wanted to be a teacher. Others like Gideon Kirui had their entire family saving up for his education. These students have to rely on Twitter for humanisation as opposed to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, all of whom were humanised in effusive media profiles. Few of the Kenyan students will be lucky to get the same treatment.
Our media constantly pits terrorism as a 21st century conflict between Western liberal values versus violent religious orthodoxy. Terrorism is diametrically opposed to not just people from the West but all of humanity. Unfortunately, in our media, that humanity is usually blonde and light skinned or has to actually hold an American or British passport to count. Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy’s murder made more waves around the world as compared to the scores of people who have been killed by fundamentalists in Bangladesh over the past year, because it underscores the media’s need for neat narratives. Complex issues with a metaphorical stroke of a pen are turned into simplistic Manichean accounts, and in these cases, Western values are the light leading the way.
It’s no secret how ethnocentric our media really is, but it’s the consumers that are to blame as well. I wonder how many of us stayed riveted to our screens or constantly followed news updates about the attack as it was taking place. Media coverage is usually a response to what readers want to read and in this case it feels like African lives occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, there was no solidarity hashtag trending within minutes. Apparently, it’s easier for people to place themselves in the shoes of a provocative French satirist than wide eyed university students with dreams for their future.
Let’s not make the Garissa University students another African statistic. Their lives are as important as any of the Parisians who perished on January 5th this year. #AfricanLivesMatter