Tim Butcher remembers being told to move quickly. He was in Katanga, a vast province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sent to Africa in 2000 as a war correspondent for The Telegraph, he knew he was an outsider—a natural target for the rebels. He was traveling on a small motorbike across rutted roads, but stopped when he noticed a cluster of children. They asked Butcher if he wanted to see the bones.
“What do you mean, the bones?” Butcher asked. Then he saw them, scattered among the rubble.
“As a journalist, of course, I get my notebook out and ask, ‘Who are these victims?’” The children didn’t know, but it didn’t matter.
Butcher, an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, worked in Africa and the Middle East as a leading war correspondent until 2009. On January 30 he spoke about his experiences in the Congo as part of the International Issues Discussion at Ryerson.
“The Congo is the secret place where the world’s worst war has been taking place since 1996,” he says, hands gesturing outward, as if this is a breaking news story. And that’s the problem. No one pays attention anymore.
When the war in the Congo began in the 1960s, Butcher says there was great journalistic activity, and that many reporters were eager to share their stories with the public. But as time went on, the war became progressively worse, and so did the coverage.
“I find it absolutely remarkable that the attention span has moved on. The war hasn’t. It’s still there. It’s as bad as it ever was,” he says. According to Butcher’s book Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, the war was claiming 1,000 lives every day when he started his work in 2000.
“It made me slightly frustrated with the journalists’ attitude, which is, it has to be new for us to cover it,” he says. “It drilled home that you should challenge that assumption.”
Butcher resigned from The Telegraph after he was told the Congo was too dangerous and that the events there were no longer newsworthy.
But there’s a way to solve this problem of timeliness: Journalists must seek a current angle on an old story. For instance, Butcher says, mention the Congo community in Canada or the large Congolese presence in Toronto. “That would give you a perspective on what I’ve just told you, directly here in Toronto,” he says. While no one can argue that timeliness is an important news element, Butcher has made me realize it’s not the only one.