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Paying attention to Madagascar

I’ve noted in the past that it’s hard to pay attention to news stories in other parts of the world when you don’t have a personal connection to them. If you don’t know any Moldovans and can’t find Moldova on a map, you’re likely to ignore news about that country. Joi Ito calls this “the caring problem”, and it’s one of the phenomena I’m most interested in understanding and overcoming.

There’s a parallel to this problem, of course, which is the tendency to pay close attention people and places we do care about. I paid far more attention to the election in Ghana than to other African elections, for understandable reasons. And the Global Voices community, right now, is paying very close attention to Madagascar. We’ve got a number of terrific Malagasy correspondents, a major project in Madagascar under the Rising Voices initiative, and a lively Malagasy-language version of the Global Voices site.

And, unfortunately, there’s a lot to pay attention to in Madagascar right now. On the heels of a cyclone that’s displaced thousands of people, the nation is facing a serious political showdown that’s descended into violence. The conflict pits President Marc Ravalomanana against Andry Rajoelina, mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo. Rajoelina is a media entrepreneur, and manages a television network that has been a thorn in the side of the president.

In December, Rajoelina’s network broadcast an interview with Madagascar’s former president, who is now in exile in France. President Ravalomanana responded by closing down Rajoelina’s station. The mayor accused the president of dictatorial behavior, and called on supporters to protest in Antananarivo. Unfortunately, protesters set fire to a complex including government buildings and a television station linked to the president. More than 35 people have been killed, primarily people trapped in the building as it caught fire. Protests continue today, but have been peaceful, with more than 40,000 opposition supporters in the streets.

Photo of the fire by avylavitra

There’s not a ton of news coming from Madagascar through official channels. Search on Google News and you’ll see a few hundred stories… which turn out to be roughly half a dozen wire stories, reprinted by various publications. There’s lots, lots more information on our site, with reports from Twitter with rumors that the president has fled, discussions of instability on a Malagasy-language Yahoo group, and photos from the ground. If you look at the Topix page on Madagascar, roughly half the coverage is from our site.

David Sasaki notes that the reports coming from Madagascar help emphasize the importance of citizen media in countries where there’s little international media attention. He also points out that citizen media is helping show sides of Madagascar that are more hopeful than the recent disasters and protests.

We’ll continue to follow the story in Madagascar closely, and I hope there will be more good, and less sad, news to share in the future.