Gabon: The forgotten protests, the blinkered media
2011-02-17, Issue 517
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So far 2011 has been a remarkable year for rapid political change. Spurred on by Mohamed Bouazizi's, protests in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid spread throughout the nation and ultimately accomplished the unthinkable: Forced the end of a 23-year dictatorship. Inspired by the actions of the Tunisian people, protesters took to the streets in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Egypt. Despite his defiance on Thursday night and the looming face-off on Friday, Mubarak has already offered several concessions, and it seems clear that Egyptian politics will shift sharply in the coming months. Seeking to address protester’s concerns, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has sacked his cabinet and ordered the formation of a new government, while Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has agreed to step down in 2013.
English-language media was, for the most part, slow to cover the Tunisian protest story. As it became clear protesters were actually forcing Ben Ali from power, networks caught up rapidly and offered live video of the remarkable events in Tunis, as the army intervened to protect protesters from security forces, urging Ben Ali towards the exits. The protests in Egypt developed much more rapidly than those in Tunisia, with massive demonstrations erupting across the country on January 25 – global media covering the story intensively by January 28, when it became clear that demonstrators wouldn’t honour the government curfew and would continue to occupy central Cairo.
Al Jazeera, banned from reporting in Egypt, was able to offer 24/7 coverage from locations throughout the country, and many American viewers found themselves absorbed by Al Jazeera English’s coverage of Tahrir Square, streamed over the internet to record audiences. Other news channels turned their focus to the story, sometimes focusing less on events on the ground than on issues of regional stability or implications for the US-Israel relationship. In total, however, coverage in US media was massive for an international news story. Project for Excellence in Journalism's News Coverage Index saw the story occupying 76% of the cable TV newshole in the first week of February – it’s the biggest international news story they’ve tracked in their four-year project, and the fourth-largest story of any kind they’ve seen during that period.
It’s easy to understand why revolutions make for good television – they’re the most visible form of political change, and when they reshape governments previously considered unassailable, they’re a profoundly engaging and hopeful narrative. A revolution in Egypt is particularly compelling, as the nation is the most populous in the Arab world, and the cultural heart of the region.
But not all revolutions are blessed with this level of attention. The West African nation of Gabon is experiencing a popular revolt against the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo, president since October 2009. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of the nation's capital Libreville, on 29 January, and faced violent suppression from Ali Bongo’s troops. Protests have spread to other cities, and the crackdown against them has become increasingly fierce. Protests planned for 5 and 8 February were both suppressed with tear gas. At this point, it’s unclear whether protesters will be able to continue pressuring the government, or whether the crackdown has driven dissent underground.
The protests in Egypt and Tunisia have focused attention on autocratic governments with a history of corruption. In Egypt, the possibility of a Mubarak dynasty moving from Hosni to Gamal Mubarak helped stoke dissent. Gabonese are familiar with these types of problems. Omar Bongo is widely believed to have systematically looted the Gabonese treasury for his personal benefit. A suit brought in France by Transparency International against the governments of Gabon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea, accuses Bongo of depositing 8.5% of the national budget into a personal account at Citibank, siphoning more than $100 million from the country between 1985 and 1997. When Bongo finally died in a Barcelona hospital in 2009, a controversial election ended up selecting Bongo’s son as a new leader amid widespread accusations of voter fraud. And while Gabon, blessed with oil wealth, has a very high gross domestic product per capita by sub-Saharan African standards, little of that wealth reaches the Gabonese people, one third of which live in poverty.
Little surprise, then, that Gabonese opposition supporters watched the events in Tunisia with a sense of hope and possibility.
It’s understandable that protests in Gabon haven’t captured the world’s attention. Gabon is a small nation, with a population of 1.5 million, and very few casual newspaper readers could place it accurately on a map. (test your skill at African geography on the CS Monitor's quiz). But this lack of attention has consequences. As protests unfolded in Libreville, opposition leader André Mba Obame – who likely won the 2009 election – and his leading advisors took sanctuary in the UNDP's compound in the city, fearing arrest by Ali Bongo’s forces. According to recent Facebook posts, Obame and his advisors are facing steady pressure from UNDP to vacate the premises, and have already been ordered to surrender their cellphones.
It’s unlikely the UNDP would risk expelling opposition leaders – who would likely be immediately arrested – if the world was watching. The world, however, is emphatically not watching. Search for “Gabon” on Google News, and the only recent coverage of protests you’ll find is from Global Voices, where Cameroonian author Julie Owono is following the story closely. (Google News’s French edition is marginally better, though there coverage is dominated by Gabon-focused sites like InfosGabon, not mainstream French papers or TV channels.)
While we’re always happy to be ahead of the pack on a story like this, I’m starting to see an uncomfortable pattern in the coverage of people’s protests around the world. Some revolutions are easily understood and reported on – it was easy to predict that the Green Movement’s actions against the Ahmedinejad government in Iran would be enthusiastically received by American and European audiences. A struggle like that of the yellow shirts and red shirts in Thailand is much harder for global audiences to understand, and it’s less obvious which side will experience solidarity from interested audiences in the US and Europe. And revolutions in far-off and little-known nationals like Madagascar often fail to register at all, even when profound political changes are afoot.
When Rebecca MacKinnon and I started Global Voices in 2004, we explicitly sought to broaden coverage of stories like the protests in Gabon. We believed that the rise of citizen media meant many more voices could become part of the media dialogue, and that international news outlets would look to the people directly affected by events for their accounts and perspectives. That’s proven true – for the past month, our newsroom has been flooded with requests from media outlets around the world to unpack and comment on the events in Tunisia, and especially those in Egypt.
Where Global Voices has been vastly less successful is in achieving another of our goals: shifting the global media agenda to be more globally inclusive. In other words, we’re very good at getting attention to different commentators and observers of events to which major media outlets have decided to pay attention. But we’ve had little to no luck shifting attention to stories that fail to register on the media’s radar screen, even when we’re able to provide on-the-ground commentary and eyewitness accounts.
New media technologies – not just online media, but satellite television, which has been critically important in covering (and perhaps inspiring) protests in Egypt and Tunisia – offer the promise of covering breaking events in much greater depth than in a broadcast world. I’m very grateful for Al Jazeera English’s thorough, ongoing coverage of events in Egypt, and for my friend Andy Carvin's relentless curation of Twitter, following protests in Tunisia and Egypt. But I worry that these technologies aren’t broadening the set of stories covered internationally – in many cases, we seem to be covering a narrower range of stories than in years past, though in far greater depth.
The danger of ignoring Gabon’s revolution isn’t just that opposition forces will be arrested or worse. It’s that we fail to understand the profound shifts underway across the world that change the nature of popular revolution. The wave of protests that swelled in Tunisia may not break just in the Arab world, but across a much larger swath of the planet. The brave actions of ordinary Tunisians didn’t just capture the imagination of subjugated people in the Arab world – they were an inspiration to disempowered people everywhere. Social media gives a voice not just to protesters in Sidi Bouzid and Alexandria, but in Libreville and Port-Gentil. And as audiences around the world watch in wonder as Christian and Muslim protesters pray together in Tahrir Square, they wonder why struggles in Gabon can’t command at least a fraction of this attention.
If the inspiration for popular protest can come from anywhere in the world, and the tools to report the struggle are distributed to everyone with a cellphone, those of us far from these upheavals face a powerful responsibility. We are challenged to witness people’s struggles, whether or not they take place in countries we already know and fear. We are challenged to ensure that authoritarian regimes don’t crush dissent because they know no one is watching. Increasingly, we have the tools to pay attention to revolutionary change anywhere in the world – now we just have to live up to our responsibilities. FAM
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* This story was orginally published on Ethan Zuckerman's blog.
* Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and a fellow at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media. His research focuses on the distribution of attention in mainstream and new media, the use of technology for international development, and the use of new media technologies by activists. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in more than 150 nations and thirty languages, publishing editions in 20 languages. Through Global Voices, Ethan is active in efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces.
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