03
Jun 13

The ever-changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013

I’m in Thailand (at the World Editors Forum) and the news is full of protest all over the world: Bangkok itself, Turkey and in the unpredictable places where the ladies of Femen pop up and take off their clothes.

Protest needs innovation as much as any department of life and perhaps it needs it more than most because protest goes nowhere if it isn’t noticed and doesn’t spread. Innovation is deviation and new protesters must find new and original ways to imprint a message instantly in as many minds as possible, preferably without words. It must be an image delivered instantaneously because protest can be snuffed out fast and because there is anyway so much else competing for peoples’ attention. Compelling visual wit is harder than it appears.

The examples above represent a remarkable cluster of originality in this specialised global competition. In Turkey, they wave beercans to protest against new restrictions on alcolhol. Much better, a hundred or so people held a kiss protest at a subway station in Ankara to make fun of the increase in rules on public behaviour.

The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013Here in Thailand, demonstrators have reached back into an example distant in both geography and time. Political movements in Thailand have long been signalled by colour (yellow vs red mostly) but yesterday, the anti-goverment crowd wore Guy Fawkes masks and the (equally peaceful) counter-demo wore red masks. Needless to say, young Thai activists have not been reading books about 17th century British history. They picked up the cue from the 2005 film V for Vendetta in which people march on the parliament in London wearing the masks. (The use of these masks isn’t confined to Thailand and didn’t start here – examples here – but looks especially odd so far from its origins).

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The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013Share This Post

14
Sep 12

Tunisia and its media: the quiet struggle heats up

If you want to understand what underlies the riots and attacks against US embassies across North Africa, have a look at one usually under-reported country where three people died in disturbances at the weekend. In Tunisia, the struggles of a newly-liberated Arab society over religion, society and law are being played out in and around the media.

Tunisia and its media: the quiet struggle heats up

Never seen as a cradle of revolution before 2011, Tunisian protestors triggered the Arab Spring. Overthrowing the dictator now looks like the easy bit. Working out new rules for a society which has thrown away the old ones turns out to be the hard part. The media, once run or intimidated by the state machine, has turned into one of the flashpoints. The first free elections saw a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, come to power at the head of a coalition which faces more radical Islamists and Salafists one one side and the secular opposition parties (“leftist lobbies” in goverment language) on the other, some tainted by association with the old regime.

The pivot of the competition for power under new constitutive rules is not between “western” (i.e. Euro-American) ideas of liberalism and something vaguely labelled “Islamic” but between rival interpretations of Islam. There are many different versions of how Islam co-exists with civil society – and indeed whether Islam tolerates something we call civil society. Few regret the passing of corrupt Arab dictators such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, but those dictators were aggressively secular.

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23
Dec 11

Christmas catchup of stuff I missed

This post just carries links to one or two pieces worth reading that I’ve missed or put to one side in the past few weeks.

  • I’ve been waiting for some time for a systematic, measured study of new media’s role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. This looks like the first such one (if you know of others I’ve missed, please tell me). It’s only about Twitter and really only about the networking aspects, when the real study needs to link and compare the use and consumption of every thing from satellite TV to Facebook and Twitter. But it’s a start and a fascinating one.
  • Second up is a piece by Clay Shirky about news institutions and the “crisis”. Above all this is a plea for experiments in news and a strongly made argument that, important as newspapers are as institutions, their adaptive capabilities really aren’t keeping up with what’s happening. Shirky’s piece also contains a link to an essay by Jonathan Stray on the digital public sphere which also looks excellent.
  • Last is the New York Times picture essay on 2011: a vivid way to recall what has been a truly unusual twelve months.

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07
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactful

Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.

When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.

Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.

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31
Mar 11

Tunileaks wins Index recognition

The Tunileaks site, which posted the relevant Wikileaks diplomatic cables almost as soon as they were released, was rewarded for its work with an award the other night. The award was collected by Sami Ben Gharbia, co-founder of the Tunisian blog Nawaat, which set up Tunileaks.

Proper acknowledgement of its likely influence I’d say. This blog argued way back that in certain circumstances – and the situation in Tunisia looked like those circumstances – a few cables could have a big influence. (Please bear in mind that the post linked here was written in December).


24
Jan 11

Kidnapping Facebook passwords in Tunisia

There’s been quite a bit here and in many other blogs about the role of social media in the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia. One tweeter, @SoniaEdu, sent me an indignant message insisting that what people did was more important than software or networks after a post in which I’d been talking up the role of informal media in the revolt. “(The revolt) was Tunisian.,” she wrote, “Those are tools. It’s like saying the scalpel saved patients because it was used by a surgeon.”

No question that Tunisian people took the risks and made it happen. But a scalpel can be sharp or blunt, well-designed or poorly made. The quality of the blade will make a difference to the result. So it was with Facebook, Twitter and the material they carried which also reached Tunisians via satellite television channels based outside the country.

If you doubt the fear that Facebook was creating inside the regime, read this terrific piece of reporting by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic on the battle waged between the Facebook security people and hackers in Tunisia trying to steal the passwords of every Facebook user in the country. The protesters’ cutting edge stayed sharp despite attempts to blunt it.


15
Jan 11

Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

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14
Jan 11

The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

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