So we’re starting a new term in our Masters program. On the agenda, a class called Online Journalism, which, as it turns out is pretty interesting. The way our world is changing is daunting, but exciting. That we are able to post things right from the street and upload them in seconds so that people across the world can see them is changing the way information works.
But despite my interest in how the internet and technology is affecting our craft, this first class today freaked me out. Not because I don’t like iPads and Kindles and smartphones. I actually think some of them are pretty cool. But as I was writing my notes down, a question kept popping into my head. It became so persistent that I finally scribbled it in the margins:
What are the consequences?
In my undergrad we learned about how our choices affect those in other countries. In the 90s the outcry was against so called “sweatshops,” where factories in Asia pumped out the items needed to fulfill the West’s desires. For our generation, I believe one of the many issues that we have to grapple with is how the minerals and metals needed to make our smartphones, cameras, computers and more are fueling a war right across the ocean.
Coltan is one of the elements used in cellphones. In an article from 2008, Mike Pflanz of the Telegraph reports, “More than 80 per cent of the world's coltan is in Africa, and 80 percent of that lies in territory controlled by Congo's various ragtag rebel groups, armed militia and its corrupt and underfunded national army.”*
Congo has been in conflict since the 1990s, some of it a spill-over from the notorious war in Rwanda. The violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis continued when many Hutu men fled to Congo following the genocide. A few days ago I posted an article to Twitter about how there have been 500 rapes in the Congo in the past 2 months, according to the United Nations. In 2008 it was reported that more than five and a half million people have died since the war officially began in 1998.
Numbers like this should scare tech-savvy students and consumers like us when we consider that the role of conflict minerals in the deaths and rapes in Congo have recently been acknowledged in a confidential United Nations report that was leaked to the media. Organizations like The Enough Project have begun to make noise about the effect of conflict minerals. But computer and IT companies continue to trade with suppliers in war-torn Congo.
So my question is, are we willing to live with that? Are we willing to live with the fact that our desire to be on top of technological trends is directly linked to the death and rape of people in countries like Congo? As journalists, can we use these tools to reach our readers without a serious look at the ramifications? Don’t we have an obligation to the truth, however it might inconvenience us?
Because if we do, there are still options. News media sources are choosing those options each time they publish an article on the Congo. People are putting pressure on companies to make sure that the materials they use are ethically sourced. And as young journalists and consumers, we can do the same.
Progress for us and for the world shouldn’t have to mean suffering for someone else. Because how can that be called progress at all?
Note: This piece was originally posted on the Western Online Journalism blog, where it received almost 2000 page views.
*I would encourage you to read the entire article here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/congo/3407217/How-the-mobile-phone-in-your-pocket-is-helping-to-pay-for-the-civil-war-in-Congo.html It is the most comprehensive piece I have found on the subject.
Other articles on Congo, minerals, and corporations:
“Human exploitation fuels mining trade in DRC: Apple, Dell look away”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amnesty-international/human-exploitation-fuels_b_243939.html
“Congo’s Death Rate Unchanged Since War Ended”: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/23/world/africa/23congo.html?_r=1&ref=congothedemocraticrepublicof
“The U.N. Report on War Crimes in Congo”: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/27/the-u-n-report-on-war-crimes-in-congo/?scp=5&sq=congo&st=cse
“Over 500 rapes in Congo since July: UN”: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/09/08/congo-un-attack.html