Many seasons have passed since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. I was recently at a conference that provided an opportunity to think about the many forms of activism that erupted in those heady days, and the aftermath, as reflected on different screens.
In Bahrain, residents set up roadblocks, ‘teskirats’, to stop police and military vehicles from moving through their neighborhoods. Ala’a Shehabi, Bahraini writer and economist, quickly realized that the teskirats were provocations, a form of grassroots protest with aesthetic overtones. Shehabi opened her presentation with a slide showing women arranging a line of vegetable boxes filled with rocks across their street, to hinder the patrols and register their opposition. People brought out what they had access to, rubble from the streets or old sofas and chairs from their homes, using domestic objects to erect barriers that became part of the battle of images during the uprising. Protesters found ways to mock police, for example, by placing a large teddy bear in one of the chairs. The roadblocks served a practical purpose, built high enough to hide behind during direct confrontations. But they also became gathering places for residents, and created new spaces for children to play. Bahrainis used roadblocks to reclaim their streets, as sites of political action and everyday life.
In another screening, Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi presented excerpts from the transmedial archive she has created as a time-line of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Baladi’s ongoing collection is a bricollage of myths and events, using video, sound, images and new technologies in critiques, often humorous, occasionally outrageous and clearly feminist. As it grows, the archive becomes a means to feed back into the events that took place in Tahrir Square, then and now, and elsewhere. Baladi showed her work at the ‘Tahrir cinema,’ the open air screen that was erected in the square, and these screenings in turn generated new material for the archive.
Over the past decade, the public screen has become a new venue where people gather to view events taking place elsewhere. More important, as these screenings at the ‘Tahrir cinema’ have demonstrated, the public screen brings the events ‘home.’ Watching the events together with others in a shared public space becomes a collective experience, with potential for social and political empowerment.
Issues explicitly related to protests had a marginal influence on this week’s headlines. On Tuesday RT reported on student protests in Paris against police brutality and on Friday Al Jazeera reported on Banksy’s latest West Bank creation, entitled the Walled off Hotel, which was described as part museum, part hotel and part protest site. This can be compared to Trump’s budget announcement that made the first headline on BBCW, Al Jazeera and CNN on Monday.
This observation arguably actualises questions about the possibilities for non-elite actors, such as protesters to enter the media agenda, especially in a media ecology characterized by a greater diversity of outlets. A concept that can help us grapple with this seemingly contradictory shortage of time and space for protest in televised news is what media scholar Daniel Dayan has described as a politics of attention (2009). Dayan use this concept in order to make sense of what he calls sharedness and attention in a media context where the centrality of old already established media outlets has become increasingly challenged by the advent of new outlets and new media technologies.
While channels such as the ones we code in Screening Protest, certainly have contributed to push sharedness and attention outside of territorial geographies by broadcasting beyond the borders of nation states, this week’s headlines certainly question whether this change has corresponded with any significant change in the politics of attention of televised news. That is, has an increase in the number of outlets corresponded with an increased diversity of actors who comes across in the media agenda?
Observations from a single week in 2017 is not enough to help us answer that question. Yet, as we collect and code more and more data, we hope to be able to document this politics of attention, and contribute to a discussion of its implication for activists in an increasingly globalized media ecology.
The answer to that would be: in Romania.
Bucharest, the Romanian capital, and other major cities in the country, have seen a week of manifestations triggered by an emergency decree that decriminalized certain acts of corruption in which the prejudice would be less than 44.000 €. Another reason why people expressed their anger in the streets was linked to the fact that this decree was adopted by the Government late at night. This generated a very popular protest slogan: “Noaptea, ca hotii!” – “At night, like thieves”. The Government’s reasons behind this decree was the attempt to reduce the overcrowding of prisons. On Sunday, February 5th, half a million Romanians were out on the streets in all major cities.
But above all, and important to our project, this led to coverage from the global news channels that we have in focus. Though after the first days of protests the issue didn’t come up in the most important news bulletins, those of the evening primetime, as days went by and as the number of protesters out on the streets increased, so did international coverage. The first channel to report on the issue was EuroNews, followed by RT and BBC World. The Romanian protests even made it in the headlines and our global broadcasters sent correspondents on site.
When coding for protest, an important variable is violence: acts of dissent get more coverage if the protests are violent. In the case of the Romanian protests, which are the biggest the country has seen since the fall of the Communism in 1989, violence was nearly absent. Security forces made sure that those instigating to violence were kept away from the manifestation. After that, the protests took quite the opposite turn: protesters brought flowers to the security forces, a day-time protest for children was organized, hundreds of thousands of lights were used symbolically to light up the protest site, Victoria Square, young demonstrators danced in the streets under the praise of other protesters, and even Vlad The Impaler came to offer support.
In the end, the Government repealed the decree but people are still out on the streets demanding Government resignation. The Social Democrats, who are the target of the protests and winners of December’s elections, and especially their supporters, organized counter-protests in front of the Presidential Palace, Cotroceni, asking for the President’s resignation. Klaus Iohannis showed his support for the people protesting, but also stated that the Social Democrats won the elections and should govern the country, but not at any price.
Trump has had a firm position in the headlines of CNNI, BBC World, RT and Al Jazeera almost everyday this week. In addition to his inauguration on January the 20th, his recent policies seem to have been met with particularly many protests around the globe, which have also been covered in the headlines to some extent.
Apart from being the 45th president of the United States, Trump is also the third US president to hold office during the period of inquiry for the Screening Protest project, which spans from 2008 to 2018. Among other possibilities, this data allows us to compare this week’s coverage of Trump with Obama’s first weeks in office during 2009 and 2013. While it is difficult not to get side-tracked by the uncertainty with Trump, it is important we remember this data and not only ask what is different about Trump, but also what is similar.
For instance, in spite of Trump’s seemingly spectacular politics, he remains, in our codebook, a political elite actor. As such we can compare the relation between his presence in the news and other, especially non-elite, actors, such as activists, with the relation between former political elite actors and non-elite actors. While elites historically have had a significantly stronger presence in the news, the protests surrounding Trump might tell us a different story about that presence, just as his firm position in this week’s headlines might tell us that things seem very much the same.
In addition, different from George W. Bush, and his last months in office during 2008, and Barack Obama when he was inaugurated in 2009, Trump is a political elite actor that is post-Arabic spring and post-Occupy Wall Street. While these observations may or may not be discussed in the news, they arguably give us strong grounds for analysing the coverage of the protests against Trump as a particular historical case, which can be compared with other different, yet similar cases.
Thus, when a lot of things seem to be changing for the worse, I find some comfort in the fact that some things remain the same (if only in our codebook). At the same time I’m hoping to find that this week’s, or next week’s, headlines will be different.
Protests broke out on January 4, in Tel Aviv outside the courtroom when a young Israeli soldier, Elor Azoria, was found guilty of killing an incapacitated Palestinian lying on a street in Hebron the previous March. The Palestinian, Abdul-Fatah al-Sharif, had been wounded after he allegedly stabbed an Israeli soldier. The fatal shots had been captured on video, circulating through social media and international broadcast news. Human rights activists, from Israel and elsewhere, saw this as an example of ‘extra-judicial killings’, while police authorities defended the soldier’s actions as a necessary measure in the face of any terrorist act. The charges against the 19-year-old soldier had split opinion within Israel, and fueled conservatives’ support of Azoria. The trial had received international coverage, so it was to be expected that the clashes that erupted between police and the crowd of conservative Israelis who had gathered to protest the verdict would appear in news broadcasts included in the Screening Protest project.
A few days later, I was at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, being introduced to “Local Testimony”, an annual exhibition of documentary photography and photojournalism by photographers who are active in the region. The exhibition, which was founded in 2003, is designed to represent a retrospective of the past year’s events in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and runs concurrently with a selection from the World Press Photo annual competition.
Our guide, Ami Steinitz, introduced us to this year’s exhibit by contrasting two photographs; the first by Amir Cohen, from the courtroom during Azoria’s trial as the young soldier sits impassively with his parents behind him, their grief and worry evident amidst the other participants. The second, by Yonatan Sindel, was more simple and stark, of a rectangle of black plastic covering a body, with only the hands showing. The victim here was 21-year-old Omar Yasser Skafi, who had been shot as he attempted to carry out a car-ramming attack in Jerusalem the year before. Our guide movingly described this double tragedy and the challenges of including all sides of a conflict in an exhibition that differs from the usual press coverage, and that represents the many facets of this region, as they try to address the question ‘How do we contain the violence around us?’ He stressed the point that ‘around us’ includes not only Israel but what they see as they look across the entire Middle East.
Other parts of the exhibit represented the richness and cultural diversity of the region, and where political violence was not at the forefront, such as Abir Sultan’s beautiful black and white portrait of Talleen Abu Hanna, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, winner of the first Miss Trans Israel contest. The insights to be gained through local visual testimony were also evident in the contrast World Press Photo provided. Following my research into images of protest, I was not surprised to find a winning photograph from Paris of a public manifestation supporting free speech and solidarity against terrorist attacks of the previous autumn in that city. Also Black Lives Matter was represented, in a photograph from Chicago of a face-down between a young black demonstrator and a white policeman.
I learned something new, however, when I encountered a beautiful photograph in “Local Testimony”, by Oren Ziv, of Bedouin women scattered across a brown hillside, facing a line of bulldozers at the crest of the hill. The bulldozers were there to begin planting a forest on the site of their Negev village, Al-Araqeeb, which has been destroyed 104 times since 2010. Their protest was not international news, nor was their (partial) success. Although 10 of the protesters were arrested, the bulldozers have been halted, at least for the time being.
In November, cinema scholar Malin Wahlgren was invited to speak about her ongoing research at one of our project seminars. The research was centered on what Wahlgren conceptualized as solidarity programming in Swedish public service television between the late 1960s and early 1970s. It addressed how alternative documentary films about topics such as black liberation movements in Southern Africa and reports from the Vietnam war found their way in to the programming of Swedish public television (SR, now SVT). Wahlgren explores this process by studying discussions between executives, editors, film makers and distribution agencies, inside and outside of SR, concerning the inclusion of these films. The films were often met with critical response from the public as well as from the board and executives of SR, who, as Wahlgren found, were concerned with preserving the objectivity and reliability of the current affairs programming.
Compared to the empirical focus of the Screening Protest project, Wahlgren focuses more on what goes on behind the scenes when protest and other politically charged subjects are screened on television. It deals less directly with questions concerning representation, which is at the heart of the project, and more with the context of production in the mediation process.
A point that is recognized in our project is that different narrative genres are often associated with different expectations about what is allowed, and is not, on the television screen. Journalists may for instance be expected to honor norms of objectivity when producing news, while screenwriters, for instance, are not. That is also why we have different studies, which compare representations of protest in popular culture with the ones in the news, as well as between newsrooms, to see how they vary. What I find interesting with Wahlgren’s research is that, in spite of being limited to a specific historical context, it arguably offers an interesting perspective on how such expectations may vary, not only according to genre, but also become subject to change over time or in particular moments.
Although we are working with different source materials, a question I took with me from that seminar was whether and how we can find the traces of those changes in the televisual representations of protest over time. The video for this post is a trailer from a documentary called Concerning Violence (2014) by Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson, and which features footage from some of the films discussed in Wahlgren’s research.
Last week’s election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States sent shockwaves around the world. World leaders paused and considered how to react and right and radical right-wing politicians across Europe rejoiced and congratulated President-elect Trump.
Some of the more than 52% of Americans who voted for candidates other than Trump took to the streets of cities across America and global news broadcasters were there to meet them.
Coverage of the anti-Trump protests appeared on every channel studied by the Screening Protest Project (Al Jazeera English, BBC World, CCTV English, CNN International, DWTV, Euronews, and RT). RT and its sister network, Ruptly, which focuses almost exclusively on providing “raw” (un-narrated but already edited) video of protests, were both quick to cover the protests and provided hours of video online and concluded their coverage by claiming that the anti-Trump protests were overwhelmingly organized and funded by George Soros via the Open Society Foundation which also widely funds prodemocracy initiatives across the former USSR.
In the days following the elections, RT placed the anti-Trump protests prominently in their broadcasts and devoted far more airtime to the protests than any other network monitored by our project.
RT’s initial coverage of the protests included night scenes of “phobia” stricken protesters who required a police escort, burned American flags, and needed to be cordoned off from a Trump owned property. This segment, which quickly went on to explain how American media “freaked out” and how CNN supported the narrative of ISIS by mentioning the terror organization’s professed glee at Trump’s election was not only posted online by RT but was also replayed 24 hours later by the network.
As mentioned in an earlier post, the Russian state has increasingly come under scrutiny for its increasing use of propaganda. The anti-Trump election protests provide a great opportunity to see RT’s spin machine in action.
Chaotic scenes of violence were at the forefront of Euronews’ reporting on the protests.
Late last week, protests by opponents of Indonesia’s leading non-Muslim politician, Jakarta’s Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, took place in that country’s capital and received considerable coverage in the international media. The event gave researchers at the Screening Protest Project a chance to see how different networks represented a protest in a country that often doesn’t make it into the headlines of English-language global news broadcasters.
Al Jazeera English, CCTV News, Euronews (English) and even Turkey’s new global news channel, TRT World, reported on the event. The reports varied greatly in their style, length, imagery, and framing of the protest with arguably none of the channels doing a terribly good job of contextualizing the protest within the broader theme of ongoing internal instability within the world’s most populous Muslim country.
TRT World’s coverage included a live interview with its correspondent in Jakarta who pointed out that the governor remained popular amongst residents of the city after having focused on “real issues” during his term in office and that many of the populist “Islamic-right” protesters had traveled to the capital from other parts of Indonesia.
CCTV’s 40 seconds of coverage reported that the protesters “had used references from the Koran to attack [the governor],” while neglecting to mention the governor’s Chinese heritage.
Al Jazeera English’s correspondent interviewed the governor and highlighted the macro-social conditions of rising anti-Chinese and anti-Christian sentiment during the build up to the protest. Later coverage by the network reported on how a “peaceful protest” had turned violent after protesters from mainly conservative and radical groups had begun attacking cars and looting.
Finally, Euronews (English) began its report with the loud noise of an explosion and scenes of “violent clashes” before briefly elaborating on the cause of the protests and their progression across the city.
Researchers at the Screening Protest Project are always keen to explore the variations in reports on protests that take place in countries that often don’t make it into the headlines. Indonesia is a culturally heterogeneous country of over 250 million people that has long been a challenging country to cover for journalists. These reports, from a growing number of global news broadcasters add diversify to our project’s data and make analysis of outlier cases possible.
One of our project’s component studies is about depictions of protest in popular culture. In my case, that means music, and how songs and music videos can be used as vehicles for political messages of discontent. I’ve blogged before about news reports on the anger caused by corruption and politicians in Romania, but in this post, I’d like to combine news and pop culture to think through “The Day We Die”, a song by the Romanian band Goodbye To Gravity. It seems to me that this is a perfect example of how a popular cultural text – in this case, a rock song – targets corruption (“F**k all your wicked corruption/ It’s been there since our inception”), protests against political leaders (“Loose lips are shifting leaders”), and the reduction of people to numbers (“We’re not numbers, we’re free, we’re so alive, so alive”) and encourages individuals to take a stand (“Stand your ground in the battle zone/ Filled with life, bone and scorn/ Clench your fists, I’m battle prone/ Pull the trigger and set the tone”).
While the song itself can be interpreted as spreading messages of discontent, an event related to it is particularly worth noting. This time last year – on October 30th 2015 – Goodbye to Gravity had their last concert in Colectiv, a club in Bucharest. At around 22:30 a fire broke in the location, killing 64 young people, injuring over 100, and leading to 20,000 people taking to the streets in protest. Their voices were raised against corruption, at the indifference of authorities, and at the failure to respect safety regulations by allowing unsafe spaces to be used for public gatherings, as it was the case with the abovementioned club. The protests led to the resignation of then prime minister Victor Ponta and the fall of the government, as well as stricter controls in respecting safety regulations in public spaces as clubs, bars, restaurants, and a bill that forbids smoking in such places.
On the one year anniversary of the day they died, Romania remembered them with a march of commemoration, and a silent protest highlighting a problem that persists: corruption in Romanian politics. Four thousand people were out on the streets with banners, silently heading towards the club where the fire started last October, and that is now closed.
While some point to changes that have followed in the wake of the nightclub incident, the general feeling is one of pessimism. Even the president, Klaus Werner Iohannis, agrees that political parties in Romania must continue to reform. The political discourse of the parties will play an important role in the future parliamentary elections scheduled for December 11.
The song mentioned above was toned down and covered by two other Romanian bands, as a tribute for the victims. Out of the members of the band involved in the tragedy, the lead singer is the only one still alive.
So where does this leave us? As I said at the beginning of this piece, it is the story of a popular cultural text with a deep political message. To use the language of our coding scheme, the trigger of the protest and the shift in Romanian politics was a fire in a nightclub. The protest issue was corruption, clearly stated by both protesters and journalists reporting on the event. Reporting the manifestation on the anniversary of the protests, Euronews (see clip below) reminded viewers of the continued importance of the issue. As Euronews is one of the channels we follow, the protest may well end up in our sample.
We are used to seeing police officers in news reports on the other side of the barricades that protesters form when they take to the streets, and discussions continue about police brutality towards various groups throughout the world, not least the US. The past week, however, has seen hundreds of policemen in France taking on the role of protester themselves, demonstrating to highlight the violence perpetrated against them by civilians. The coding scheme we use on the Screening Protest project is designed with a confusing world like this in mind. It allows us to capture the plurality of roles any given actor may play in a report – such as both ‘protester’ and ‘member of the law and order forces’ in this specific case.
Apart from this twist in what is usually perceived as a classic police-protester dichotomy, there is something else about this manifestation that makes it particularly interesting. The French police chose the Place de la République as the site of what Al Jazeera called their ‘march of anger’ – a site heavy with the memory of the horror of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, and of subsequent mourning. With the anniversary of the attacks less than a month away, the Al Jazeera reporter hinted that the choice of location is significant, especially when paired with the protesting police officers’ complaints: they can no longer protect citizens under current working conditions. They have been calling for the state to intervene, to reduce the possibility that the scenes from Place de la République a year ago repeat again.
When coding news items that have protests in focus, all these elements are important for our work – the symbolic value of the location chosen by protesters, how the problem is framed in a given news report, and the identification of an actor at whom protesters’ claims are directed.