Parag Khanna’s Foreign Policy blog posted a video interview with Lara Setrakian today, a mid-east correspondent for BBC and Bloomberg. The video begins by pointing out that it takes place in New York’s Grand Central Station, which “has absolutely nothing to do with this interview.” This nicely frames the ensuing reflection on western reflection on western media on media in the Arab spring–and how inspiring it all is. There is a lot of this going around, provoking a lot of reactions, but this video’s enthusiasm struck me as particularly telling.
First of all, I should say that I do not know Ms Setrakian’s work. She is likely an excellent journalist, and it may very well be the case that she has a “very unique vantage point of monitoring all the events in the region” from Iran to Tahrir. It is, in any case, on the basis of this MENA protest expertise that she was asked to identify “the most dramatic moment of the last couple of years that you’ve been covering the region.”
Her response, unequivocally and unsurprisingly, was Tahrir.
And there is something to this. There is some kind of ubiquitous fascination with the Egyptian story. One can gesture towards the socio-cultural role Egypt has traditionally played in the Arab region, or distinct distaste of Mubarak’s western pedigree, or stereotypes about the jovial likeability of the Egyptian character, or argue that there is just something especially powerful about the Egyptian narrative—a hopeless argument in the end, since we know so much more about the Egyptian narrative than others. But there is something to it. In fact, this something that pops out quite quickly when you start mapping Arab Spring countries by Google search frequency and news coverage (top and bottom respectively in the graph below).
I put this graph together quickly (hence the difference in colors for the top and bottom—top was exported to csv to graph just Q1, while bottom is a stretched image straight from Google Trends). Yet the Egyptian dominance is faily striking for anecdotal purposes. It is also worth noticing that while Egypt remains dominant in searches throughout the period, Lybia peaks briefly in late March for news coverage. A more careful look and plotting of this data might yield interesting insights, but for immediate gratification, Setrakian’s interview will shed enough light.
The most dramatic moment was “absolutely tahrir square, where you can zoom in on the drama at all of the entry points and then in the core of Tahrir Square the notion that they would spontaneously protect something that they built, just over the days of revolution.”
This strikes me as in keeping with what most of us find compelling about the Tahrir story: the stubborn refusal to stand down to injustice, poetically rendered, again and again on popular media. Setrakian describes this heroic stance in terms of protection, a resilient dedication to protect and nurture hard-won gains, no matter the continued assault of thugs and violence that flowed into Tahrir “like they were being poured from a cup.” Nor is the image of protection any less relevant today, as Egyptian’s revolutionaries continue to hold the line in an increasingly bleak context.
But it is the image of Tahrir some weeks ago that Setrakian is occupied with–those iconic Tahrir moments she identifies as “the most dramatic”, then regionalizes in the same breath:
…this is what you saw in Iran […], and that’s what you’re seeing now in Syria and Libya: this willingness to either stand sentinel or to run into the guys with the guns or into the guys with the batons. And I just remember thinking that it was a few weeks before that young men were setting themselves on fire in the Arab world and now that they had this opportunity, you weren’t hearing that any more, they were putting that into something new.
I agree that this heroic dedication across the region is inspiring. And it is nice to see someone speaking (or rather gesturing loosely towards while reenacting) the power of media to inspire. But there are issues.
First of all, inspiration is no excuse for “running into guys with guns.” There are all kinds of potential for false hope in the Arab Spring’s incessant broadcast. As Patrick Meyer pointed out in his post on Sudanese protests inspired by events up north, things can go terribly wrong. It is easy to forget that the Egyptian revolution was tempered in a decade of preparatory street action. Nor is the point of civil protest to get arrested and tortured. Second of all, people are still setting themselves on fire. That we are not hearing about it is part of the problem.
In sum, I am not looking to berate Setrakian for her breathless enthusiasm, she makes some good points after all. But it is hard not to sigh over the way distance and enthusiasm interact in the interview, and to imagine how that subjective experience replicates itself in parts of the world more dangerous than Grand Central Station.
One point where I think Setrakian is right-on, is when she is asked who can compete with Al Jazeera in the region, and answers “no one”. Setrakian rightly credits Al Jazeera with being the most galvanizing media force in the uprisings, and the main driver of the “media multiplier effect”, and this probably translate into a competitive advantage that will not be quickly or easily eroded. Al Jazeera has received a lot of abstract credit for their “media multiplication”, but there remains limited understanding about how it actually functioned. I am continually surprised to see media experts so eager with this praise, yet stopping short of clearly spelling out how AJ worked with citizen-produced media, and how that was received on the ground.
AJ’s citizen media broadcast was especially novel and especially important in Tunisia, where they (along with others) were banned from covering protests, but received footage from citizens and broadcast it back in. Activists credit this praxis with getting the Tunisian middle class into the streets, and it is tempting to speculate about what the Tunisian revolution would have looked like without this kind of media engagement. It is equally hard not to be moved by the anecdote of plain-clothed police going from Café to Café in Cairo, changing the channel from Al Jazzeera in the early days of the Egyptian uprising (that is, before they simply started jamming the satellite signal).
Interestingly, Al Jazeera executives have argued (most recently on tonight’s Norwegian News—will be posted tomorrow) that this engagement with citizen-media embodies the very essence of journalistic integrity. I may be adding nuance to a brief interview, but i was struck by the argument that this type of reporting is an expression of objectivity and non-partisanism, by virtue of its allegiance to human rights principles in a repressive context. It will be interesting to see if the Arab Spring will push any ripples of this argument back into the ongoing debate about journalistic professionalism in the face of new media.