Sorry Vigario Geral, Gaza takes precedence
My city bleeds, and the international psyche largely ignores its anguish.
For more than 20 years, some neighborhoods in my hometown of Rio de Janeiro have been transformed into war zones. The utter poverty of our shantytowns has led our forlorn youth to narcotrafficking and violence from an early age, upending any hope for progress.
The situation in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro is a humanitarian disaster that since the 1980s has carried on endlessly and unrestrained. Yet while poverty, violence, disease and death are turning my city into a shambles, the tragedy of the hillside slums in Rio are largely accepted as the status quo by the media, the international community and the Brazilian government.
A recent documentary about the favelas Rio, Favela Rising, was nominated for an Oscar and honored with several awards including "Film of the Year" by the International Film Association for its glaring look at the violence of a favela called VigÃ¡rio Geral. The film, which offers powerful imagery of the brutality of the gangs and the police in Rio, while tracing the mission of a local music group AfroReggae to inspire youngsters to stay away from drug-dealing, received excellent reviews in the Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Interestingly, at the very beginning of this acclaimed documentary, a screen shot in bold white letters printed over a black background offers perturbing statistics: While 467 minors were killed in Israel and the Palestinian Authority between 1987 to 2001 (a date which includes the first intifada), 3,937 minors were killed as a result of gang warfare in Rio de Janeiro alone - an 8 to 1 ratio.
NONE OF the reviews have focused on this alarming fact and the message that the Brazilian directors intended to convey by this statistic. Why does a documentary that stresses the suffering and longing of the youth in the favelas of Rio care about the deaths of minors in Israel and the Palestinian territories? Because disproportionate media attention has been given to hyped conflicts such as Israel-Palestine and Kosovo, framing the public perception to believe that those conflicts are in fact the ones in most dire need of international aid.
A questionnaire given at a "War and Peace" course at an Australian university asked 37 students to list what they thought were the three deadliest conflicts in the world as well as the conflict they thought, in terms of humanitarian conditions, was in most need of a solution.
The most prevalent answer to the first question was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with nine students saying it was the deadliest conflict. To the second question, 21 students responded that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was most urgently in need of a solution. In both cases, the students, who presumably study topics in international relations, seem to have a misperception that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most ghastly of all.
The students are wrong. In fact, since the 1990s, conflicts in places obscure to the public consciousness such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and my city, Rio de Janeiro, have been much more gruesome, claiming far more lives than the conflict in Israel-Palestine or Kosovo.
My city bleeds, and the international psyche largely ignores its anguish. Instead, the world devotes a disproportionate amount of resources to places with far higher standards of living.
TO BE FAIR, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Kosovo War have been tragic and are embedded with a significant dimension of civilizational fissure. But is a Palestinian Arab or Israeli Jewish child worth any more than a Brazilian child? Is it fair to dump aid and diplomatic efforts and to disproportionately spotlight on one region of the world?
I blame it on the media. The media is critical in setting the political agenda, and it has failed in fairly distributing relevant information. Instead, the news media today has ubiquitously become a supplier of a mÃ©lange of entertainment and information - sometimes emphasizing the former far more than the latter. The portmanteau "infotainment" accurately describes the state of the mass media of today, carefully choosing stories that will attract the most readers and sell the most advertisements instead of stories that are gravely affecting the world.
If there is a humanitarian disaster in my city comparable to the suffering in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I challenge the publishers of mainstream newspapers to cover it in depth. I dare editors and journalists to help students like the aforementioned Australian undergraduates understand the precarious conditions under which children from favelas have to grow up.
I commend the attention that has been given to the documentary Favela Rising, and urge others to keep reporting on the subject.
I know that every Kassam that kills an Israeli in Sderot or every IDF missile that kills a Palestinian in Gaza will most likely make it to the pages of The New York Times.
So I humbly request Arabs and Israelis alike - and the media that covers their conflict: Will you compassionately share some space with my Rio de Janeiro compatriots?
The writer is currently taking part in The Israel Project's Media Fellows Program.