Mittwoch, 28. März 2012

History in the making – How the way media are covering events today affects how they will be told tomorrow

A Guest Post by Stefanie Groth

I am asking myself these days what children will be told in school about the ‘Arab Spring’ in ten to twenty years. What their textbooks will read like about the events that were triggered in 2011, when a young Tunisian man called Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself out of protest, and whose suicide then reverberated in a wave of upheavals across the Middle East that put the whole region into a seminal process of transition. How will this part of history that is still in the making be told?

I remember from when I was a pupil that historical events were presented to us as facts, and, therefore, seemed easy to understand: Event A led state B to do C which affected state D, E and F
who then replied by doing G – and so on. Presented in this way, we were likely to take what we were told for truth. It was not until later, that it appeared to me that history was just a story everyone tells in his own way – and how essential it is to ask whose story it is, who is telling it and to whom when we try to make sense of history.

Making sense of history seems to be easier with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly, it is out of question that one can say clearer what had happened afterwards than while it is taking place. However, what if it is not so much hindsight that is easier than foresight, but the rather incautious way events of seminal dimension were dealt with when they took place which makes us then say that they are only illuminated in retrospect?

It is said that a sense of the past illuminates the present. But what if the way we make sense of things in the present might already suggest how it will be reproduced once it is considered as past? To put it in a nutshell, may we infer from the way the ‘Arab Spring’ is covered today to the way historians will make sense of it in ten to twenty years’ time? If so, we are left with a rather fragmented picture of contemporary history, considering the coverage of the Arab upheavals by Western mainstream media.

The ongoing events across the Middle East affect the entire region in a wider scope than one could tell from mass media coverage. While Egypt and Syria are at the centre of world media attention, other countries like Bahrain and Yemen remain at its periphery. In the meantime, protest movements such as the 25th of February movement in Mauritania or student protests in Morocco and Sudan stay firmly in the dark.

Not only the frequency of media attention given to certain countries while others stay firmly in the dark, but also the terminology that the media adopted is highly questionable. The term ‘Facebook Revolution’ misconceives the events. Representing the struggles for political and societal changes in the Middle East merely as a ‘Social Media Revolution’ of an upper middle class youth is selective and simply does not correspond to the situation. It ignores the majority of poor people, also among the urban youth, and misses out the various forms of creative activism on the ground and their grass-root organisation in forms of neighbourhood patrols and cleaning troops, for example.

Indeed, it draws a worrying picture of activism, since it implies that by clicking on a link or forwarding something, one has done one’s share. However, it was the people, al-Shaab, who continuously gathered in the streets, demanding change and claiming their dignity. Beyond doubt social media played an important role as an organisational tool during the upheavals. However, their role is misconceived in the current developments in the Middle East.

What the term ‘Facebook Revolution’ gets wrong is that it gives credit to the tool, where it should be given to the people. It frames the events from a technological perspective of development through modernisation and by this presumes an ‘inability’ to democratise without new media.

However, as momentous as the ongoing developments in the Middle East may have appeared, they barely came out of the blue. Recent history has its examples of successful mass mobilisation in the Middle East, long before the world was obsessed with the potential of social media: the student movement in Egypt after Nasser’s defeat 1967, the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987, protests against wars in Iraq 1990/91 and 2003, or the Iranian Green Revolution 2009 are but a few examples. The region saw labour movements as it did generate female activism. Yet, media coverage mainly failed to put the Arab upheavals into perspective and acknowledge them as part of a continuous historical development of ups and downs.

What if a more cautious and balanced way of covering the Arab upheavals at present could prevent us from getting history wrong – how may such coverage be realised and what are its obstacles?

Where the role of new media has been exaggerated in triggering protests, it does play an essential part in gathering information. Video footage captured by mobile phones and distributed via the Internet enables a counter perspective to official state media. A potential that increasingly gains relevance in cases were journalists are not allowed to enter a country or when authoritarian regimes try to disconnect their people from any communication with the outside world by cutting-off internet and mobile services.

Yet, citizen-captured footage is of no immediate value, since it does not speak for itself. Initially, it only expands the pool of incoming information which needs to be verified – just as any other source. Not to forget that every bit of citizen generated content that appears in the mainstream media was carefully chosen. Hence, there might be more information available to balance the coverage, however, this does not thoroughly challenge the power of mainstream media to be selective along their agenda.

New ways of information gathering do not stop information warfare. Syria is a posterchild in that case which was just recently shown by the devastating explosions in Damascus and Aleppo. While the opposition accused groups loyal to the government of carrying out the attacks to tarnish the uprising, the regime took the events as proof of being targeted by terrorists and, thus, a legitimisation to go on with its brutal crackdown.

Although the ‘war of information’ by far is nothing new, it has reached a novel dimension with the era of cyber warfare. Technological innovation opened new possibilities in the game of controlling information and spreading disinformation. The newest episode on this part is a leak from Assads’ private email account obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian, revealing for example how Assad took advice from Iran. The emails were intercepted by members of a Syrian opposition group and, according to The Guardian, appear to be genuine. In the meantime, Al Jazeera, too, has gained access to confidential documents which were passed to the network by a former member of Assad’s government.

So, if in the end, it is only clear that everything is unclear, and if it is also true that ‘journalists write the first draft of history’ but then again ‘truth is the first casualty of war’ – how do we make sense of both our present and the past?

Maybe we should forget about hindsight and rather acknowledge that history is made today, in the way we look at events, how we reflect on them, how we name and frame them. Therefore, we have to be cautious and critical today, and challenge what we are seeing. Making sense is not about seeking truth within a story, but rather about detecting and recognising the underlying complexity of today’s news, which will shape the history of tomorrow.

Probably, someone should have told me this in school. I might not have been able to understand it
then. But I definitely would have appreciated it some years later.

Note: In a former version of this article I quoted an opinion poll that found that 55% of the Syrians are in favour of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president.However, as a commentator rightly noted, this poll lacks representativeness due to its small sample size of 98 people and was therefore deleted. Nonetheless, I would like to emphasise its relevance in highlighting the fact that the domestic composition of regime supporters, opposition and silent bystanders is not well known - and deserves greater attention and coverage. More detailed information on the poll can be found in a BBC article.

Stefanie Groth is postgraduate student of Global Media and Postnational Communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Previously, she studied in Erfurt and Berlin Islamic studies and communication studies. In her studies, she focuses on International Political Communication in the Middle East, media and development, and the interplay of culture, identity and politics in Arab societies.

1 Kommentar:

Anonym hat gesagt…

that pro bashar poll you are citing is based on interviews with 98 people only. hardly an inconvenient truth - only for the person who cites it.