On the 22nd of February this year, British newspaper journalism lost one of its most fearless and resolute reporters to the Syrian conflict. Marie Colvin, who had long spoken of the dangers of front line war reporting, was killed alongside a French journalist, Remi Ochlik, and was among several others who were severely wounded and remained trapped in the besieged district of Babr Amr, Homs. In the days, and now weeks, that have followed, there has been a lot of debate over the ethics of foreign journalists being present during such volatile circumstances, and unintentionally becoming the focus of the news rather than simply acting as a conduit through which events are reported. This debate was further fuelled as video messages were sent by the injured and surviving journalists, asking for a ceasefire to allow their removal from Babr amr district, and then as several members of the Syrian Free Army lost their lives in aiding the removal of the journalists to neighbouring Lebanon. Continue reading
Category Archives: social media
Elation and Disappointment
The removal of Hosni Mubarak from the head of the Egyptian government was a momentary release of the pressure that had been building all around the country in every major town and city. Parties and celebrations that stretched through the night into the heady days that followed seemed to carry the message that the felling of the tyrant, particularly considering the manner in which he was felled, had made everything better. The mass mobilisation of the people, never seen on this scale in modern day Egypt, had proved victorious. The people were undefeatable and indefatigable; they were assured in their own invincibility by this great feat of collectivism and then, even as the dust and excitement started to settle, there was a sense that now, everything was going to be alright.
The tumultuous summer that followed Egypt’s Arab Spring suggested otherwise, and as the temporary custodians of the Egyptian Government – in the form of Mubarak’s once staunchly loyal Generals – began to settle into their roles the frustrated and betrayed protestors began to filter back into the Square that had rose to infamy as the battleground for Egyptian freedom.
The Generals, perhaps lacking Mubarak’s sense for the visual in violent oppression of the general, and increasingly vocal, population, did not use men mounted on camels to ride through the Square, bludgeoning everyone in reach. Instead, they opted for the more time tested and subtle methods of harassment by military and police men on foot, employing brutal beatings without any of the visuals that draw many a grateful television camera. And this lack of display is quite possibly very intentional; the Generals are well aware of the damage a captive international audience could do to their current hegemony, if only to help support and spur on the protestors domestically.
Turning a Blind Eye
For the past six months, as it turns out, the world has had its eyes turned elsewhere. The fall of Mubarak acted as closure for many people watching from afar; after all, in the movies the story ends with the decimation of the villain. There have also been plots elsewhere that have torn the audience away; the war in Libya against Gaddafi and what remained of his followers was not only more bloody, it drew many of the West in as governments clamoured to rid the world of this sinister evil dictator and rallied behind the liberating forces. The dominoes had also begun toppling across the region and throughout the globe, and in between insurrections, protests and riots the economic system kept crumbling beneath everyone. Everywhere.
It seems, in fact, that for many people the first resounding nod to the mere fact that something may be wrong with the governance of Egypt is when the elections returned a vote in favour of what have been broadly noted as ‘Islamist’ parties. This, after a decade of Al Qaeda and living on an amber alert, seemed to snap Egypt back into the international consciousness and instigated a whole series of debates over the ability of an Arab population to maintain a democracy, and whether there was something generally wrong with a people who intentionally mark ballot papers in favour of ‘extremists’.
Right Question, Wrong Answer
There seems to be, in many parts of the press and amongst a great deal of the general population – in the UK at least – a tendency to miss the rather less than subtle difference between the more extreme Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood which has been part of Egyptian society for nearly a century – even if it was banned for great swathes of that time. In any case, a vote for either should not be confused with a vote for extremism of any form.
Islamic groups, which have also become political parties with the advent of democracy, are a key feature of these elections for a number of reasons. Firstly, due to their operation through and within the mosque, they have been impossible to destroy entirely even as blanket bans were issued by the governments. With a captive audience (90% of Egyptians are Muslims) and a ready-made meeting place in the mosque, groups centred on Islamic principles have been the only dominant form of civil society in a state which has forbidden political expression against the government. These groups have also been instrumental in raising and distributing Zakat (alms), effectively providing social benefits for the poor and in need; as have they long held strong anti-corruption sentiments – both of which add to their popularity.
That the current political system in Egypt is problematic is unquestionable, but those problems are not with the beneficiaries of the popular vote but with the Generals who seem quite unwilling to relinquish power. Yes, a government containing any Islamic party could possibly opt to ban alcohol and bikinis, but that they will be taking away a cheap and alcohol soaked tourist destination for sun-starved Brits should not be the main concern in judging a government. Instead we should be watching closely, and providing support for a people making their first, important steps out of Tahrir Square and into a better, freer and more just Egypt. A vote for the Muslim Brotherhood is not a vote for tyranny, oppression and violence, but if this is what a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood leads to, then, just as before, the people of Egypt know how to take their country back.
In March I wrote about the deadly assault in 1982 on the Syrian town of Hama, a city which dared to square up to the might of Hafez Al-Assad and his powerful Ba’ath party, in which up to 40,000 people were estimated to have been killed. In 1982, though, there were no mobile phones or readily available internet access. The siege, with all its victims and bloody legacy, went virtually unnoticed by the international community, and unreported by the world’s press. It simply slipped into the realm of infamy, a tale whispered throughout the region as a parable, a warning to those who would challenge the autocratic and dictatorial leaders of their country. Over 15,000 of the city’s population have still not been accounted for, nearly 30 years later. Now, after months of conflagrations flaring up throughout many of the towns and cities in Syria, Hama has yet again become a focal point for the Assad regime as anti-government protests engulf the city.
The power of collectivity is what has driven the Arab Spring as far as it has, across borders and tearing through a region as an unstoppable force of social change. It relies entirely on the quick development of a critical mass, a number of people large enough to overwhelm direct reprisals from governments, through security forces, the military or the police. This task of creating an initial burst of people onto the streets is a momentous feat of organisation, and in countries dogged by the decades-old states of emergency preventing mass gatherings for anything but religious events, doing this without raising alarm among security apparatuses is both extremely difficult and perilously dangerous.
The Arab Spring, that revolution rolling throughout the Arab World, is a movement that incorporates a great deal of the population of each country. There are those, also, who oppose the changes – supporting as they do the current systems and status quo – who are willing to fight to the death in order to secure the systems that have, until recently, stood without vocal opposition. Both these sides are immediately recognisable in news articles, in pictures, in the grainy videos loaded all over YouTube. They wave their banners and flags, for one side or another, shout their chants and march against perceived tyranny – whichever the source – but how much of the population do these really represent?
We all say things we don’t mean. In the street, to our friends and colleagues, in the office, on Facebook and Twitter and various different blog sites we all ramble on with little regard to the consequences because, a lot of the time and for most of us, the only consequence is a little embarrassment or a few nasty rebuttals. At worst we’ll offend someone, or cause some upset, and drag ourselves around to apologise for saying things that, actually, we didn’t mean. We live with free speech without even knowing its free, we live liberty without ever feeling liberated, and we take important things – like being able to complain about public services, being able to vote for a government and being able to stand in the middle of London with a placard and shout for all we’re worth – for granted.
The death of a journalist covering the front line of any war should, in all reason, be a shock. People committed to extracting the truth from the harshest of environments have, by definition, a greater possibility of dying unnaturally than most other demographics; and yet we are somehow shocked, as though we imagine journalists – bearers of cameras and writing equipment, not guns and ammunition – to be invulnerable to the heavy artillery exploding around them, to the shots of an errant sniper hiding on the sidelines.
When Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were reported to have been killed in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata the world stood in condemnation of their deaths, even as they stood as only two in thousands likely to be slaughtered under the bombardment of Gaddafi. But what stands out about these two is not that they are Western, or American, or British – it is that being a journalist marks them out as unambiguous in their position on the front line. They do not persist on the battle field to fight, to attack; they are there to report, to record, and to ensure that the brutality people have suffered, and are suffering, is not lost from the international collective conciousness, that the people who suffer are not remembered merely as numbers, as statistics, as collateral damage.
Bahrain has begun drawing in troops from a variety of Gulf states in order to help quell the uprising that shows no signs of going away quietly. Now the pro-democracy demonstrators will have to face troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as their own Bahraini forces in their quest for socio-political change. With 1,000 Saudi troops, and 150 Saudi armoured troop carriers, already in the small Gulf state the tremors of trepidation that have been making their way through the Middle East are becoming more visible.
The Government of Bahrain
The fact is, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stand to gain a lot from helping out their small island neighbour. The Bahraini leadership is a Constitutional Monarchy and, on the surface, resembles the political structure of the Westminster Government of the United Kingdom. The monarchy is hereditary, just like that of the Windsors, and the upper chamber - the Shura – is appointed, just like the Lords, whilst the lower chamber is elected by eligible voters, just like the Commons. So on the surface, yes, the layout is the same. The difference is, though, whilst the Shura has the ability to veto legislation passed by the elected chamber, it is entirely appointed by the King of Bahrain, rather that by elected members of the lower house, as with a proportion of the House of Lords.
The monarchy in Bahrain, then, has a great deal more power than in the United Kingdom, despite the similarities in structure, and more in common with the Monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is this overarching power that the protesters object to, calling rather vociferously for the movement of powers towards the elected chamber, rather than to the highly controlled Shura. In Saudi Arabia there is no such thing as an elected chamber, no pretence of democracy in a country whose leadership is hereditary and whose power is absolute.
Saudi Arabia, The House of Saud and 11 million Barrels a Day
When the cries of democracy start in Saudi Arabia, with a monarchical lineage that precedes the state of Saudi Arabia and after which the state is named, there will be more that political change at stake. The House of Saud, the family which runs Saudi Arabia, controls more than the country itself. They have the highest known oil reserves in the world, producing 10.8 million barrels a day for export throughout 2010, one million barrels a day more than their closest rival, Russia. They are also a key supplier of the United States, which consumes 0.5 million barrels a day more than that figure.
Saudi Arabia also control one of the largest caches of weaponry in the world, ranking 10th in terms of military spending (2009) and third in terms of spending as a percentage of GDP, whilst in 1010 they accrued 2.7% of the global total on military spending. That is a huge military for one family to hold, providing an extraordinary obstacle to any rumblings of democracy amongst the population.
In cultural terms, too, it is worth noting that the Saudi Royal family hold territorial responsibility for Islam’s holiest site, Mecca, which is the city of Ibrahim (Abraham), and the birth place of the Prophet Mohammed. It is also the focal point of the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage, that draws millions of Muslims to the city every year.
Love Thy Neighbour, Profit Thyself
As guardians over the holy sites of Islam, the oil hypermarket of the world, and a huge military force, Saudi Arabia perhaps stands the most to gain from stopping the spread of pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East. This is why they advised Mubarak to fire on his own people, to brutally crush the powerful movement that erupted there. This is why they are now supplying troops to Bahrain, to prevent that monarchy from losing it’s powerful grip on the reigns of governance.
Fighting this battle on somebody else’s frontier is better than waiting for the battle to break around you. This isn’t a fight that can go on forever, though, and as the totalitarian, autocratic regimes of the Middle East fall one by one, it’s a fight that they’re bound to lose sooner or later; most likely when the oil fields dry up. I don’t imagine for a second that this fight will prevent the oppressed masses from rising up, though; I just hope that the bloodshed and terror there doesn’t match that in Libya when they finally do.
The fickle nature of the international news media has been ever apparent throughout the uprisings in the Middle East. Tunisia was quickly forgotten as Egypt’s Mubarak began to topple from a three decade reign of power; Egypt was yesterday’s news when the media focus landed on the Pearl Roundabout of Bahrain; and Bahrain’s moment at the top lasted only a few days before the Lunatic of North Africa, Colonel Gaddafi, felt his own position weaken dramatically after 42 years at the head of the Libyan Government. Now, after the Middle East being present at the top of all our news bulletins for nearly two months, the Earthquake in Japan, and subsequent deadly Tsunami that followed, pushed the Libyan story right off the headline rota in a way that even the Christchurch one didn’t manage.
What I’m saying here may seem controversial, but it’s not. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to report the Japanese earthquake at the top of the news roll; and I’m certainly not saying that it shouldn’t be reported at all. What I am saying that the attention of the news media is a powerful thing, and by cutting coverage so quickly, on something so rapidly, news providers are not only making it more difficult for the average person to keep up to date with regular reports, they devastate the maintenance of international pressure on rulers like Gaddafi.
Of course, it’s not entirely the media’s fault. The majority of people throughout the World, and the West in particular, still receive their information through traditional media outlets. The internet, whilst becoming continuously more prolific as a part of our everyday lives, is still not as effective in reaching people for news as television news, even as interactive mediums overtake print news media as a source for information. The television media is often key to maintaining levels of interest in a story because of their quick updates, and the low level of effort required by the audience.
When a story drops off the headlines, the majority of people replace this interest with the story that follows, whether natural disaster, famine, genocide or war, and the world moves on for nearly everyone except those directly affected by the one before. The challenge that now follows is not only to the news media, to keep reporting stories while they’re still alive – even if they have been continuing for a while, and to the general public, to follow and continue following stories after they drop from the television news, to visit news sites, and blogs. And for those with enough interest and commitment to continue blogging, tweeting, and evangelising about the stories that interest you, because behind those stories their are people who deserve not to be forgotten.
The current conflict in Libya has placed the country, it’s government – or rather governments – and it’s people, at the fore of the international media focus in a way that this previously isolationist North African country has never before experienced. Since February 17th, when the uprising began, journalists have scrambled for the latest stories, and nothing seems to escape the attention of a world still waiting with bated breath for the next development. So when the Gaddafi Government sent three private jets out of Libyan airspace yesterday morning, it seemed the whole world was sat wondering where they were going, what they were doing, and – most importantly – who they were carrying.
Some sat hoping that this was the final fall of Colonel Gaddafi, that he had, despite all proclamations to the contrary, decided to flee rather that fight the increasingly bloody battle. These flights, landing eventually in Vienna, Athens and Egypt, proved to be carrying instead a number of remaining loyalists, his emissaries to the European Community, and to the newly established military government in Egypt.
Since arriving in Europe these diplomats have been entering into negotiations trying to prevent the establishment of a no-fly zone, and to plea for leniency should Gaddafi ever reach the International Criminal Court. Not only is this a very late show of diplomacy – and by late I mean 42 years late – but these ambassadors of sorts are also having to play catch-up with the new Libyan National Council, established only at the end of last week in Benghazi.
With the Libyan Liberation Force and the National Council already participating in international negotiations, and with the Free Libya satellite station, Libya Alhurra, launched only yesterday (Wednesday 9th March), the Gaddafi’s are now losing the information war as well as that being played out on the ground. His credibility on the world stage, never that prolific, is almost non-existent with even staunch allies, such as Italy’s Berlusconi and Venezuela’s Chavez, are now turning away in disgust at the way he has brutalised his own people.
This late diplomatic run, seemingly an act of desperation in sensing the end of his campaign, is unlikely to work. The evidence, already well established first through reports on social media and then through coverage by the international media corporations, is already stacking up against Gaddafi as the real face of his regime is shown vividly on platforms as varied as BBC News, YouTube and Twitter. The other problem, of course, is that to wage a charm offensive you need charm, a resource that, for Gaddafi, is more scarce than oil.