Archive for demonstration

Arab Spring in slow motion?

Posted in activism, Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 12 May, 2012 by Virgil

Vote counting in Chipata, Zambia. Photo by afromusing under a CC Licence

One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia’s ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt’s iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.

The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.

It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration’s grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).

But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they neededeach time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia’s main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government’s prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.

As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.

This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.

The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party ‘democracies’ in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.

Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small victories for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.

The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).

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The media, technology and Cote d’Ivoire

Posted in Cote d'Ivoire, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 26 March, 2011 by Virgil

In early March, security forces in Cote d’Ivoire opened fire on a group of women protestors at a demonstration in Abidjan, the commercial capital, killing seven of them and wounding many more. The events (including footage of military vehicles at the scene) were captured on a mobile phone camera and the footage was uploaded onto the internet.

There was some coverage in the English-language media of these events (there has been much more in the French media – Cote d’Ivoire was a French colony) and some expressions of outrage, but, relatively speaking, for a massacre of unarmed (no guns, stones or anything other than symbolic leaves) women by the security forces of an illegitimate government caught on camera, this did not get much attention.

There is, of course, much more to the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire than this particular massacre – more than 400 people have been killed and as many as one million displaced since the crisis started in November 2010 over the results of disputed elections. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, thought to have lost the elections, refuses to bow out, while the apparent winner, Alassane Ouattara, remains largely confined to a hotel. But the massacre of unarmed women caught on camera could have been a turning point of some kind in terms of the level of attention the conflict was able to attract and in terms of efforts aimed at it resolution. It wasn’t. The situation in Libya (the massacre happened before disaster struck in Japan) was dominating the news at the time and there was little room for anything else. Partly as a result, UN aid agencies are suffering from a dire shortage of funds for Cote d’Ivoire.

This leads us to the question of how far technology can really go in drawing attention to stealth conflicts and crises. Advances in information and communication technology carry with them untold potential for changes in the flow of information in the world. Potentially, information can be gathered from and delivered to anywhere in the world, and all with little more than a single mobile phone. And massive amounts of information are indeed moving in this way. These developments could conceivably have brought about major changes in terms of variety in the content of the news we consume. But the reality has been far less spectacular. The availability of images/evidence of large-scale human rights abuse alone does not necessarily translate into attention and indignation.

Oddly, the mainstream media, internet sources included, still huddles obsessively around the same one or two crises (pack journalism) and virtually ignores whatever may be happening in the rest of the world. Variety and diversity in terms of what crises are chosen for concentrated media coverage is in very short supply. Furthermore, the scale of the crisis (death toll or humanitarian suffering) usually has nothing to do with the choice the media collectively make – the priorities of the ‘home’ government are almost invariably a far greater consideration.

For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.

Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.

Peace journalism

Posted in academia and conflict, activism, media coverage, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 18 July, 2010 by Virgil

Thanks to the likes of peace scholars/practitioners Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch, peace journalism has been increasingly growing into a strong movement (see their recently released book, Reporting Conflict: New Directions in Peace Journalism for more detail).

 While peace journalism may sound like a form of activism on the part of the journalists, this is really not the case. It is more a case of putting a measure of balance into how journalists portray conflict, working towards a more comprehensive picture of how things are. As things stand now, the media tends to report on conflict with an ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality. That is, focusing simply on the violence – the bombs, explosions, the people fleeing.

 At the same time that violence is being played out, however, there are people and organizations that are working to bring a stop to the hostilities and solve the underlying causes of the violence. Peace processes are underway. But it is not only the peace processes that are being given scant attention, so too are the issues, context and underlying causes themselves. Lynch and Galtung liken this state of affairs to looking at the smoke and ignoring the fire, or simply viewing the result of a disease without examining the diagnosis, prognosis or therapy. War journalism could be seen as parallel to disease journalism whereas peace journalism would be similar in nature to health journalism.

 If journalism is supposed to be facilitating our understanding of the conflicts that are going on in the world, then simply portraying the violence is really not going to help. It is in fact going to inhibit our understanding, not only because it provides but one superficial part of the picture, but also because it encourages gross oversimplification of the situation and the reinforcement of inaccurate stereotypes.

It is in this light that a demonstration for peace journalism was held outside the offices of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in Sydney on 9 July 2010, primarily targeting workers at the ABC as they came in for work. It seems that this was the world’s first protest for peace journalism. It was a modest gathering with most of the participants being those attending the conference on the theme ‘communicating peace’ organized by the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) and held at Sydney University, but the movement will surely continue to grow.

 The notion of stealth conflicts is about the majority of conflicts remaining off-the-radar of the media, with the bulk of media attention being lavished on a select few chosen conflicts. Peace journalism draws attention to the ‘stealth’ within the coverage of individual conflicts. As long as the violence is the primary target of coverage of conflict, many important aspects of the conflict will remain in the shadows.

With corporate media seemingly addicted to action and sensationalism in attempting to sell their product – which is increasingly infotainment, rather than news – the movement for peace journalism will certainly be an uphill struggle, but it is one that is very necessary.

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