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Television and mass media have become catalysts for change. Except – and this question needs to be asked, change to what, and for whom, and why?
When riot police clash with protesters, incessant back-to-back TV coverage in “repressed dictatorships” is thought to be justified.
The larger objective, it is explained, is campaign journalism and the mass media is merely an instrument to achieve it.
The Arab Spring has been media-led and fuelled, bringing about dramatic changes in the Arab world and serving as a warning to dictatorships in the region.
But what about democracies where elections are held regularly and the press is free?
Can street protests be covered incessantly? Is it wrong to assume that a few protests would signal the fall of the government?
Take the case of TV coverage of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. Thanks to incessant reporting from Turkey the issue is taken seriously and has the potential of shaping policy – elsewhere.
“We’ve made clear our concerns about the use of excessive force,” remarked White House Spokesman Jay Carney during a press conference about Turkey, a key American ally since the end of World War II.“As we stated from the outset last week, the United States supports full freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest, as fundamental to any democracy,” said Carney. “We believe that the vast majority of the protesters have been peaceful, law-abiding, ordinary citizens exercising their rights.”
Heads of International broadcasters like CNN, Al Jazeera and, to a certain extent, the BBC seem to have stopped asking themselves whether their non-stop coverage of street protests in Brazil and Turkey can be justified.
In Turkey, when protesters found that there was negligible coverage of their protests they attacked TV channels.
Are news networks being “pressured” to cover protests? Or are they still hoping for an Arab Spring in Turkey, or a magical economic overhaul in Brazil?
While the networks, which routinely cover these events, offer no perspective, strong visuals of police beating up protesters seem to imply that the government has lost control and the leadership is autocratic.
It is certainly not the job of broadcasters to become apologists for these governments.
But equally, with the increased impact of television and social media, it would have been prudent to pause and think whether they could be accused of actually fuelling the protests.
It is also not my case to censor or in any way prevent coverage, but what I am questioning is the extent of the coverage. Every day the planning head of every broadcaster has to “line up” events, guests, etc. since the ‘beast’ has to be fed everyday; the nature of the medium is such that it usually moves from one visually enriching story to another.
You can’t blame anyone really because it comes with the territory. But in an effort at one upmanship particularly between CNN and Al Jazeera – now that Al Jazeera is setting up in the US – it is reasonable to ask whether Al Jazeera’s frenetic coverage of Turkey has more to do with CNN grabbing eyeballs.
It is a no-brainer to say that mass media is the means to an end for any protester. Coverage is something no protester can afford to miss.
Does it not then increase the responsibility of those sending young reporters to the field – with no experience of the land they are reporting from?
One reporter from the BBC was actually interviewed about his coverage of Turkey protests and how a park protest became something bigger.
What did it become into and why? He has no clear answer but he felt that it was exciting to cover the event particularly with tear gas being fired. Is BBC covering a war zone?Paul Mason, Economics Editor for BBC’s Newsnight, had this to say:
“I have covered Syntagma, the Occupy protests [in the US] and reported from Tahrir Square [in Egypt]. This [Turkey] is different to all of them.
First, it is massive. The sheer numbers dwarf any single episode of civil unrest in Greece.
Second, the breadth of social support – within the urban enclave of Istanbul – is bigger than Greece and closer to Egypt,” he said.
But what is it that these protesters want? Interviews by Mason reveal the confusion.
“We don’t want to become Iran,” said one man.
A second man tends to contradict this. “We’re all here,” one masked woman told Mason. “Communists, anarchists, democrats. It’s not an [Mostafa Kemal] Attaturk movement.”
“The issue is freedom,” another woman told Mason.
All that may well be true, but if the protesters really do not know what they want, international broadcasters are clear about what they want – more protests, tear gas clashes with riot police, injuries, Molotov cocktails, etc.
The day the protests become silent – or standing as they are becoming in Istanbul – the news crew would close shop and head elsewhere.
A study of 342 US protests covered by the New York Times newspaper in the period between 1962 and 1990 showed that such public activities usually had an impact on the company’s publicly traded stock price.
The study showed that what mattered most was not the number of participants in the protest, but the amount of media coverage the demonstration received. Stock prices of the targeted companies fell one-tenth of a per cent for every paragraph printed about the event.
Brazil is the latest media target. Why? Because the crowds are massive.
Initially, the protesters were teargased. But even Brazil’s news media, which had blasted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in recent days for her lack of response to the protests, seemed largely unimpressed with her careful speech, but noted the difficult situation facing a government trying to understand a mass movement with no central leaders and a flood of demands.
With “no objective information about the nature of the organisation of the protests,” wrote Igor Gielow in a column for Brazil’s biggest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, “Dilma resorted to an innocuous speech to cool down spirits.”“At its height, some one million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets nationwide on Thursday night with grievances ranging from public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for international sports events,” wrote The Guardian in London.
What is the government supposed to do when according to Reuters, “TV images showed masked youths looting stores, setting fires and defacing buildings”, including the foreign ministry in Brasilia, which had its windows smashed?
The BBC, while extensively covering the riots, admits that it is clueless about the issues.
Both Brazil and Turkey are facing protests from an unusual quarter – the new middle class that has benefitted immensely from the reforms. Apparently, they want more and more.
In the case of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, the protesters are demanding, at least on the face of it, “greater freedom”.
In booming Brazil, the noveau riche don’t just want a cut in bus fares; they want to do away with the World Cup in Brazil.
Strangely, the protests from both countries are not from the have-nots but the new haves, who want more.
The leadership the world over has no choice but to take TV coverage seriously. With more technology having enhanced media coverage globally bringing pictures live to millions of homes, an ordinary protest over a non-issue – if covered incessantly by global channels can have international repercussions.
It could undermine the government of the day. Poor handling of a riot for instance, could lead to questions about governance.
Sadly, even as international issues become extremely layered and complex, decisions have become largely based on “image diplomacy”; “visuals” have replaced the “byte” and reason in a world of riveting images.