Our perception of Africa can change, but only if we know what goes on there

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The Independent Online

Nearly a month after the slaughter of 20 school children at Sandy Hook, the awful story rightly remains a high priority for the British media.

"Massacre Guns on Sale in the UK" was a splash headline last week in The Sun, which reported that firearms "virtually identical" to the Bushmaster AR-15 used by Adam Lanza were available here too.

Sandy Hook has gripped the British media like few other foreign stories in years. Every major news organisation despatched correspondents to Connecticut and the haunting class pictures of the innocent victims were everywhere.

And yet an equally tragic foreign story, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent school-age children, has been virtually ignored. The New Year's Eve fireworks party at the national football stadium in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, turned into an awful catastrophe.

When one group of partygoers was trying to leave the venue, another crowd was surging in. In the darkness, a panic-fuelled stampede led to a deadly suffocating crush. And in the aftermath, when the trampled bodies had been taken away, the piles of unclaimed tiny sports shoes and single flip flops was a heartrending symbol of how many children died. The death toll stands at 64, with at least 28 said to be under 15.

The story was especially poignant for happening on an evening when so many families around the world had allowed their kids to stay up late, many at heavily-attended public events. Yet the tragedy went largely unrecorded in this country. The Independent and i were the only papers to carry a photograph, a shot of those lost shoes, over a two column piece headlined "Crowd stampede kills 60 after fireworks party". The Daily Telegraph stripped a short report from West Africa correspondent Mike Pflanz. The Guardian carried a few paragraphs from Reuters and The Times made it a news in brief.

All these stories appeared on the foreign pages. None of the tabloid papers thought the disaster was worthy of mention at all. At least the BBC and Sky News briefly gave the story coverage with eyewitness reports and images from Abidjan hospitals.

Africa fatigue lives on. Last month the British arm of Oxfam International changed its advertising strategy with a positive campaign which featured pictures of lush scenery and thriving food markets instead of the usual shots of starving babies. The campaign's tagline was: "Let's Make Africa Famous for Its Epic Landscapes, Not Hunger", aimed at combating the erosion in compassion that has resulted from three decades of post Band Aid famine imagery.

We might argue that Sir David Attenborough has already achieved the first part of Oxfam's objective. His new series Africa opened to an audience of 6.5million on BBC1 last week and cameraman Martyn Colbeck broke new ground in natural history television with footage of bull giraffes battling with their necks. But positive advertising and sumptuous wildlife documentaries should not mean that Africa's pain needs to be airbrushed from the news media too.

Of course, the lack of coverage of the Abidjan disaster was the result of a number of factors. Breaking on New Year's Day, when newsrooms are understaffed, the story occurred in a country where the English language media is under-served by stringers.

The global news agencies filed minimal copy and so editors were deprived of the detail of human drama which would surely have given the story a greater profile.

But this was still the biggest foreign news story of the day. At the same time a further 16 people had been killed – including four children – and 120 injured in a second New Year's Eve stadium stampede in Angola. That tragedy added to the Ivory Coast narrative or diminished it by emphasising the regularity of African disasters, depending on your point of view.

And then there was the lack of a monster like Adam Lanza for the media to put under its microscope. The killers in Abidjan and Angola were more abstract.

Sandy Hook was represented as every British parent's worst nightmare whereas, in spite of the Dunblane school tragedy of 1996, gun crime remains rare on these shores and is in decline. The Times reported last week that 39 people died from gunshots in Britain in 2011, compared to an annual death toll of 96 a decade earlier.

The possibility of being crushed in a crowd seems more real. We were all reminded of that danger recently with the results of the Hillsborough Inquiry. And yet the horrors of last week will be allowed to pass us by, the asphyxiated victims denied even the posthumous oxygen of global recognition.

Barack Obama shed tears over Sandy Hook, but don't expect the President – despite his African roots – to be making comments like "we will hug our children a little tighter" after the killer stampedes. David Cameron, who issued a Downing Street statement offering condolences to victims of the Connecticut slaughter, has not made a similar gesture since New Year's Eve.

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