Pirates, Propaganda, and CNN

-“Heroes and villians” — it is standard rhetorical fare for elected officials, media outlets, and the general public.  We all want our uplifting stories of freedom, set against the backdrop of immorality and danger.

The story of the Somali pirates is no exception.  This is not to say many of the pirates are in fact anything other than bandits.  When someone points a gun at someone else and take them hostage, the range of scenarios in which the gun-toter  could be considered anything but a criminal start to narrow greatly.

But the dominant narrative has obscured other realities on the ground.  Somalis are apparently quite angry at European ships, and with good reason.  In a widely circulated essay on The Huffington Post, Independent (UK) newspaper journalist Johann Hari spells out the gruesome details:

In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed … As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken…People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here.   There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.”

And who is responsible?  According to Hari:

Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”

But wait, it gets worst.  It isn’t that just toxic waste is being dumped by Western entities into Somali waters. Somali food is being taken as well:

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia’s unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving.

And so it should be no surprise that among those we call pirates are people who refer to themselves as the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia.  Certainly, some are criminals and bandits.  But others want to deter illegal dumpers and illegal trawlers from destroying their waters.

Just don’t mention any of this to CNN. Their reporting doesn’t seem to be bothered by any of these complex realities.  How could Somalis be the victims?  How could pirates be a “volunteer coastguard?”  Isn’t this really just a violent, lawless region, where people act out of base criminality? Take a look at this CNN article:

Pentagon looks to move battle against pirates ashore

…State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday that it’s crucial to deal with the “root cause” of the piracy issue, which he said is lawlessness and the lack of a stable government in Somalia.

…Experts in the region say that in the long run, Somalia has to change — and be changed — and that Somalis must be convinced that the pirates they see as heroes protecting their coastline are actually thugs who are preventing their country from receiving aid.

Who are the “experts in the region?”  And why aren’t there any Somalis being quoted on the record in this article?

It is a bit surprising that CNN’s reporting continually fails in this regard.  Instead of reflexively delivering the old narrative of “poor Somalis, law-abiding West,” how about posing some tougher questions?  How about placing some blame on the shipping companies who dump Western nations’ toxic waste in Somali waters?  How about some reporting on the seafood trawlers who take precious Somali seafood for Western consumers?

Such reporting is problematic because it trumpets the “Somalia has to change” mantra — ignoring the role of private Western entities in making Somalis sicker or hungrier.  Now, this isn’t the Pentagon’s fault.  But when the Pentagon says that the solution to Somali pirates must be brought onto Somali shores, the institution is ignoring those wealthy Western companies who are driving some Somalis to pick up guns and defend their coast.

For those of us who expect better reporting, we can take solace in this single sentence, buried at the bottom of CNN’s latest article:

Those who have tracked pirate activity in Somalia say it started in the 1980s, when the pirates claimed they were trying to stop the rampant illegal fishing and dumping that continues to this day off the Somali coast.

Still no Somalis quoted.  But I suppose it’s a start.


2 thoughts on “Pirates, Propaganda, and CNN”

  1. Reporting Somalia is uniquely difficult.

    There are probably no quotes, because no news outlet will send (or insure) anyone to go because it is one of the most dangerous places to report from. Probably the most dangerous. There is no green zones in Somalia. The likelihood of kidnap is very, very high.

    I suggest you read about those who have been kidnapped,


    And why one journalist who’s been to Somalia doesn’t necessarily recommend it,


    1. Graham –

      Thanks for sharing. Perhaps it is a bit much to expect a Western journalist to do on-the-ground reporting in Somalia. I wonder, though, if there is an in-between point? A way in which a foreign correspondent could still get a more nuanced and informed perspective on the region? I was struck by Yohann Hari’s writing on the subject. It seems problematic that mainstream American reporting on the issue of Somali pirates ignores some of these basic political and socioeconomic realities.

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