"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


connectivity & child protection

There's been an interesting Twitter conversations going on about child protection lately, some of which led to a revisiting of the "Kristof identified a child rape victim" debacle from this past winter. Kristof, you may recall, published a half-hearted apology/excuse blog post in which he said that it really didn't matter that he has printed a nine-year-old's face and name in one of the most widely read newspapers in the world. The reason it didn't matter, he argued, is that she lives in such a remote area that it's unlikely she or anyone she knows will have access to the internet, find the story, and use it as a basis for retaliation.

I was thinking about all of these issues when the team over at Africa is a Country posted this map of internet connectivity juxtaposed against population on the continent. As you can see, while the DRC is not among the top five connected countries on the continent, it is one of the most populous, and there seems to be a connection between population and higher levels of connectivity.

Is Kristof right that this child will never be in danger because she lives in a remote area in one of the least connected places on the planet? I think it's a really important question, one that sits at the core of determining how to handle difficult stories like this one.

Kristof said that the village in which the child lives is a four-hour hike from the road, which is some distance away from Bukavu, the nearest city in which internet access, mobile phone connectivity, and semi-reliable electricity are available. Fine. I think he's probably right that for today, she is safe. It's extremely unlikely that anyone in her village will use the internet this year, much less find the pictures of her face or read a story written about her (in English).

But I'm much less certain that this will be true in the years to come. If and when the Kivus ever stabilize, the mobile phone networks that sprung up almost overnight will move into the forests, making it easier and easier for people to get online. In fact, they already have a much wider network than you might imagine. One of the interesting side effects of state collapse is that the lack of regulation makes for a totally free market. This means that, while places like the eastern DRC can be a miserable place to live for most of its residents, there are often better products and services available there than in much more stable countries. Witness the quality and variety of goods available in Goma's markets on a weekday morning. Rwandans cross the border by the hundreds to shop every day. But Goma's residents don't look to Gisenyi's well-regulated, clean market stalls for their needs.

Likewise, internet access in Goma was for years far better than anything one could find in Rwanda. Goma doesn't have a functioning postal system, but high-speed satellite connections (while expensive) were readily available in 2005, and access has only improved as knowledge and equipment spreads. It's almost become a cliche to talk about the extensiveness and quality of Somalia's cell phone networks.

In other words, the DRC is not a desolate outpost of civilization. Access to information is more widely available than ever before, and I don't see that access decreasing anytime soon. Which brings us back to the number one rule of protecting children who are victims of violent crime: there is never, ever any reason to publish or share a child victim's identifying details with members of the general public. Even with informed consent. Even if telling the story might bring more awareness or more donations or more fame for the reporter. There's just no excuse.



Anonymous Ken said...

You are right--things change very quickly on the "ICT" front. Beyond that, it doesn't take generalized public access for criminals/militias and such to make use of technology to track down witnesses.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 7:46:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Witness the quality and variety of goods available in Goma's markets on a weekday morning. Rwandans cross the border by the hundreds to shop every day."

Very true!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 9:00:00 AM

Blogger dcat said...

I also did not realize that there was a sliding scale of potentially endangering people and that the journalists doing the potential endangering also get to determine the scale.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 11:11:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know about the Jared Diamond controversy, right?

Short version: Diamond wrote a long article about intertribal violence in New Guinea. He told a number of horror stories and attributed them to his driver, a native of the New Guinea highlands, who he identified by name. IMS the stories made the driver out to be, at least, an accessory to murder.

The driver found out about it. He says Diamond either made the stories up from whole cloth or heard them somewhere else; in any case, he's deeply pissed. He's suing Diamond for IMS $10 million for defamation in a US court. Brief googling will bring up quite a lot more details, as the whole thing has been pretty well reported.

Doug M.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 3:44:00 PM

Anonymous MoreAltitude said...

Interesting post Laura. I agree with your assertions and the criticism of the underlying assumptions that DRC and other portions of seemingly-isolated Africa are in fact disconnected. Regardless of the practical implications of Kristoff's gaffe, ethically it flew in the face of journalism ethics which aim to protect the people about whom stories are written. If it's inexcusable in America/Australia/Austria, it should be inexcusable in DRC.

FYI there's a site here that gives stats on internet usage in Africa: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm Not sure how up-to-date they are (2009 at least) and would query how they get information across a country like DRC (noting your comment on lack of regulation). The stats do indicate that DRC is, compared to other nations in Africa, not well connected to the net, but your comments above stand, especially relating to the likelihood of rapidly increasing connectivity across parts of the country being likely in the near future.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 8:12:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, everyone. I was not aware of the PNG/Diamond story, but will have to check that out.

@MoreAltitude, exactly. I wasn't clear enough here that I was really trying to eliminate Kristof's final excuse. Of course he never should have done it in the first place. It was completely unethical and that should have been the end of it.

It would be interesting to figure out how data is collected on DRC internet usage. In the Kivus, the satellite connections usually have IP addresses registered in Germany or Turkey. If I had to guess, I'd bet that the data is collected via those services and the mobile phone companies, which might make it some of the most reliable country data available. :)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 9:37:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Good blog post with links about the Jared Diamond fiasco:


The Kristof loves Gabon...from anthropology works blog:


Wednesday, May 19, 2010 10:14:00 PM

Blogger lu said...

kristof gives me a rash, i must be allergic.

Thursday, May 20, 2010 10:44:00 AM


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