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Revolution and the media

It’s been two months since the beginning of what Amy Goodman of Democracy Now described as the ‘rolling revolutions’ across North Africa and the Middle East. Starting with Tunisia, then the 18 days in Egypt and now Libya.

There have also been uprisings in other parts of North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Sudan and Djibouti) and further south in West Africa (Gabon and Liberia).  Côte d’Ivoire, which has been in a political chaos since last November’s disputed elections which resulted in two presidents, remains on the verge of conflict. Forty six Zimbabweans have been arrested and charged with treason for supporting the Egyptian revolution and on Sunday, there was an attempted coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reminding us that old-style political change is still a possibility.  

The world has been able to give witness to the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East through Al Jazeera – so much so that the TV channel has itself become part of the revolution story. The two other media giants, CNN and the BBC, have been merely bystanders; even American and British audiences have defected to Al Jazeera.  

Al Jazeera logo. Photo by Paul Keller under a Creative Commons licence.

Like millions of others around the world, I spent the first half of February obsessively glued to Al Jazeera and Twitter, waiting for Hosni Mubarak to fall. Those of us who watched it day and night were in a way also part of the revolution as we willed Mubarak to leave. We felt pride and love in our hearts for the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, our faith in humanity renewed.   

As Egyptians triumphed, protests erupted across North Africa in Algeria, Sudan and of course Libya, which has witnessed the most violent of responses from the Gaddafi regime. Revolutionaries have now become rebels as soldiers defect to the people and people take up arms against the government – essentially, there is a civil war in Libya today.

Single-story reporting has its problems and there have been growing criticisms and concerns about some of the Al Jazeera reporting. For example, their reports have placed the revolutions strictly in an Arab context, almost ignoring the fact that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco are in Africa. This was highlighted even more with the reports on ‘African mercenaries’ being deployed by Gaddafi in Libya.  

Blogger Konwomyn expressed the sentiments of many Africans south of the Sahara in the post About Those ‘African Mercenaries’, An Open Letter to Al Jazeera From Africa. An excerpt:

‘However I now write to you with concern at international media’s coverage of events in Libya, particularly concerning “African mercenaries”. I honestly don’t have a problem with the term “African mercenaries” because this is how Libyans probably refer to Black non-Libyans, but what bothers me is the way some of your TV anchors and field journalists continue to push this meme on air. For example on Sunday the anchor on Al Jazeera English, David (I didn’t get his last name, he was an older man with an English accent hosting the news around 6 pm GMT) said “mercenaries are coming from Africa” ...but Libya is in Africa. As correction perhaps, the Al Jazeera website had an excellent Features article, “In Search of an African Revolution” the very next day on Monday (21 Feb) addressing this very issue.’

Writing in the UK-based Independent, Michael Mumisa also questioned Al Jazeera’s coverage of Libya’s Black citizens and large migrant population. In the last few years, Libya, like Morocco, has become a proxy police force and prison for Italy and Spain respectfully.

‘Although Gaddafi styled himself as a fellow “Brother” to black Africans and was even bestowed the ceremonial title of Africa’s King of Kings by the West Africa Conference of Chiefs, Kings and Sultans, he presided over a society where some of the worst forms of racial prejudice and racist attitudes and practices towards black Africans and others became normalized and part of the mainstream. In 2000 about 5,200 Ghanaians fled Libya after racist violence against blacks that left more than 135 dead and many more seriously injured. George Auther, one of the victims, was quoted as saying, “The problem is, the Libyans don’t like blacks.”’

Another example has been Al Jazeera’s failure to report uprisings in other parts of the continent, such as Gabon and Cameroon.   

@eDipAtState: Media won’t cover Cameroon/Gabon much. Protesters need to use Twitter/Facebook & send reports to AJE.#Gabon #Cameroon

@cletusrayray: Is anyone listening? “Pambazuka – #Gabon: The forgotten protests, the blinkered media http://t.co/hrRJhiR” #Egypt #Libya #Bahrain #Yemen”

It’s not just Al Jazeera which is failing to report on uprisings across the continent. Following this tweet by Kenyan Pundit on 21 February:

@kenyanpundit: On global media and African protests, “Why are Anderson Cooper and Nick Kristoff not in C’ote d’Ivoire”? http://bit.ly/ibWmdu

Others took up the call and began retweeting for media coverage outside North Africa; Global Voices took up the call to pressurize CNN and other global news media:

@Blacklooks: Côte d’Ivoire: Twitter Campaign for Anderson Cooper’s Attention globalvoicesonline.org/2011/02/27/cot… via @globalvoices

It’s not only news of uprisings in other parts of Africa which are being marginalized by the international media (with the sole exception of Pambazuka News, African media have been either silent or just regurgitate Reuters and AP newsflashes – no independent OpEds there).

One of the dangers is that the single revolutionary story could end up being told at the expense of other news stories as Al Jazeera dictates what is to be told and other media corps play catch-up as they try and hold on to their ratings.    

Twitter is an excellent medium for campaigning, as the above tweets show, and one tweet can end up being repeated hundreds of times in just a few minutes. By now, probably millions of words have been written on Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but on close scrutiny you find there are only a few stories which are original and interesting; the rest are regurgitations and slight variations on one or two themes. The same with Twitter, endless retweets or tweets linking to the same articles and you get to wonder if people actually read these articles or just press the RT button.    

After a while, one begins to notice that there are silences, as even the single story revolution is itself a single story. Last week, a young Moroccan woman set herself on fire after being refused social housing because she was an unmarried mother. Unlike Mohammed  Bouazizi, Fadwa Laroui has not yet become the catalyst for a Moroccan uprisings. I quote myself here:

‘Will Moroccans have empathy for Fadwa and other single mothers or will they just pity her single motherhood and decision to destroy herself? This got me thinking about the revolutions across North Africa – will the freedoms being fought for include sexual minorities and single mothers like Fadwa? Will the freedoms include rights for migrants from south of the Sahara? Will countries like Egypt, Libya, and Morocco begin to address racism? Some say the midst of a revolution is not the time to talk of these things and make excuses and talk in denial. I say, exactly the opposite. This is the best time to talk of these things because it is in the height of revolutionary struggle that one should have the most empathy, the most love for others. It’s also a time when stripped bare, new ways of thinking and doing can be born.’

Smaller independent media are now beginning to broadcast reports, though still mainly from North Africa – examples include Press TV and The Real News. The latter broadcast the first report I had seen which mentioned the participation of Libyan women in the uprisings.

More in-depth reports on what is happening behind the scenes would be welcome. How are women, sexual minorities participating? What is happening to the migrants from West and East Africa? What has happened to the hundreds of migrants imprisoned in southern Libya?  

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