Student Media Watchdog Association

The Blame Game: the US Media’s portrayal of the Famine in Somalia

In Editorial, Somalia Famine on November 6, 2011 at 11:28 am

By Katherine Bies

Somalia’s spreading famine has already resulted in the death of tens of thousands since mid-July with 750,000 more who could soon starve to death in the coming months, according to a UN report. The worst famine in 60 years, many Somalis have fled to refugee camps in the country’s capital, Mogadishu, or in bordering Kenya. Unfortunately, aid organizations have had difficulties getting resources to those affected by the famine exacerbating these effects.

Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has blamed al-Shabab, a terrorist group which has fought to overthrow Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government for the past four years and recently linked itself to Al-Qaeda, for “preventing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia.” The US media have followed suit. Al-Shabab “is widely blamed for causing a famine in Somalia by forcing out many Western aid organizations,” reported Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times article “Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape from Famine.”

US media coverage, for the most part, has focused on heart-breaking stories of Somali refugees’ struggles and resilience. “Measuring children’s emaciated arms and describing the scraps of dignity people struggled to maintain in refugee camps substituted for investigation of causes, or discussion of remedies beyond appeals for donations,” writes Julie Hollar of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

But, when the media did attempt to discuss causes, “they could only seem to find one culprit: Islamic terrorists,” writes Hollar. While al-Shabah is certainly responsible for its role in preventing resources from reaching drought victims, fingers have not yet been pointed by most media organizations in other important directions, such as at US foreign policy.

Gettelman describes Somalia as “one of the most inaccessible countries on earth…a lawless caldron that has claimed the lives of dozens of aid workers, peacekeepers and American soldiers.” While the majority of his article focuses on these concerns, Gettleman mentions at the end that “many aid organizations are reluctant to venture into Shabab areas because of obvious dangers…and because of American government restrictions.” In 2008, the State Department made it a crime to “provide material assistance” to al-Shabab. “Aid officials say the restrictions have had a chilling effect,” reports Gettleman, “because it is nearly impossible to guarantee that the Shabab will not skim off some of the aid delivered in their areas.”

These restrictions were relaxed in early August of 2011 by the Obama administration in an attempt to provide more aid to Somalia. However, scientists had warned of drought in the Horn of Africa as early as August 2010, according to a brief by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. “U.S. counterterrorism policy kept preventative or emergency measures from being put into place until thousands had already started dying,” writes Hollar.

Aid officials have cited a lack of resources, not specifically al-Shabab, as the “chief obstacle” to reaching famine victims, according to Lee Wengraf in his article “Somalia: Hunger Made In the USA.” While the UN asked the US to pay $1.6 billion to support aid efforts, the US has only given $28 million in response to this request.

A Washington Post editorial, “Coming to Somalia’s Aid”, calls the US “the most generous donor, providing some $450 million in humanitarian assistance to the wider drought zone across the Horn of Africa.” However, “a hefty portion” of these funds come in the form of military assistance, according to FAIR. The article then proceeds to label the response of the African states as “shameful,” in another attempt by the media to blame others.

Alex Perry’s article in Time Magazine, “A Famine We Made?”, is one example of alternative media which has criticized “America’s campaign against Islamic terrorists” as a contributing factor in the inability of aid resources to provide substantial resources to Somalis. However this “stood as a rare corporate media investigation of how U.S. aid policy exacerbated the famine,” writes Hollar.

( February 1, 2011). “Somali Islamists al-Shabab ‘join al-Qaeda fight’”

(September 16, 2011). “Coming to Somalia’s Aid.” The Washington Post.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. (August, 1 2011). “Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape From Famine.” The New York Times.

Hollar, Julie. (October 2011). “Ignoring Non-Islamic Culprits in Somalia Famine.”  Fair & Accuracy in Reporting.

Wengraf, Lee. (August 21, 2011). “Somalia: Hunger Made in the USA.” Project Censored.


  1. I thought you did a great job of bringing this issue to people’s attention. I did not realize how bad the situation is in the horn of africa. I think that is another issue – this is not top of mind for people in the US. We see all the coverage of the earthquake in Turkey, but nothing about the drought and famine in the horn of africa. And especially the issue of the politics associated with terrorism.

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