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Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon? Our responsibility to witness

2011 has been a remarkable year for rapid political change. Spurred on by Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate self-immolation, protests in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid spread throughout the nation and ultimately accomplished the unthinkable: they 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, most notably, Egypt where protesters currently hold Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo and are pressuring Hosni Mubarak to step down. 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 formation of a new government, while Yemen’s president Saleh has agreed to step down in 2013.

English-language media was, for the most part, slow to cover the Tunisian protest story. (See my earlier post, “What if Tunisia Had a Revolution, But Nobody Watched?”) As it became clear that 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 were covering the story intensively by January 28, when it became clear that demonstrators wouldn’t honor the government curfew and would continue to occupy central Cairo.

Google Trends comparison of search and news attention to “Tunisia” versus “Egypt”. While the protests in Sidi Bouzid began in mid-December, a spike in media attention began only with Ben Ali’s ouster on January 14, and rapidly died out. Attention to the Egypt protests starts increasing in the days after the January 25th protest, peaking about a week later.

Al Jazeera, banned from reporting in Tunisia, was able to offer 24/7 coverage from locations throughout Egypt, 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 January 29th, 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 February 5th and 8th 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.

Protest in Meyo-Kyé, a small city in northern Gabon, 2 February, 2011. The banner reads: “In Tunisia, Ben Ali left. In Gabon, Ali Ben out.” From Global Voices’s coverage of the Gabon protests.

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 over $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 over widespread accusations of voter fraud. And while Gabon, blessed with oil wealth, has a very high GDP 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. 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 mobile phones.

It’s unlikely the UNDP would risk expelling opposition leaders – who would likely be immediately arrested – if the world were 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 one, 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 nations 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 that many more voices could become part of the media dialog, 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 that major media outlets have decided to pay attention to. 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 mobile phone, 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.

36 thoughts on “Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon? Our responsibility to witness”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention …My heart’s in Accra » Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon? Our responsibility to witness -- Topsy.com

  2. Excellent post. Gabon will be an interesting test for social media’s role in these revolutions: with the global media not covering Gabon on its own, will it bubble up through twitter? If it does, will the media take more notice? And will that effect the outcome? How connected are the Gabonese to these networks?

  3. Matt, we’ve been able to do limited reporting on Gabon leaning heavily on social media – after all, that’s what Global Voices does. But there are only about 99k internet users in the country, roughly 25k Facebook users. It’s a much smaller population that could report, and it’s possible that, given the harsh reactions thus far, they see a risk in being too vocal online in opposition to Bongo. We’ll do our best at GV to keep track, though.

  4. Thanks for this. The old ‘Times’ ( of London) or Daily Telegraph would have had something on Gabon, due to having at least had a West Africa correspondent. No longer – they barely have anyone full-time abroad. And in a way the existence of Social Media allows them to pretend to have access to ‘more real-time’ info ‘on the ground’ than that provided by a correspondent with her biases and all. Mirage of course. I find the curated coverage of Iran, Egypt wherever, to be a kind of Care Porn and after reading Sullivan for a week or two, I’m as engaged in the events to the same degree as when I buy Fairtrade coffee. Reading you makes me more attentive and I like that!

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  6. You make pertinent observations! I agree with you for the most part.

    My inner feeling is that there’s an “Africa fatigue” factor when it comes to political reporting. African news are a often presented as a “niche market” major players aren’t interested in; unless the story is really too big to ignore, is “care porn” (as Nathanael aptly said), involves a western local issue, or involves a celebrity. Egypt is primarily in the news because of it’s geopolitical situation.

    There is an army of African bloggers who raise awareness on many issues. However the information fails to circulate beyond certain circles no matter how extensive their coverage is. Francophone African bloggers have got to get French media’s attention first and if the issue is big enough the information passes on to the global networks. African fatigue.

    Sadly Gabon was considered too small and too entrenched in françafrique politics to be dealt with. I only heard about Gabon on the radio (RFI) and I thought the reporting was biased. The opposition was made to look like they had woken 2 years too late and completely irrational. The real explanations only came later but credibility was already lost. Hence the treatment they’re getting from the UN amidst generalised indifference.

    What to do…find ways to carry the voices of the few, or help activists become more efficient? Or both? Egyptian bloggers and activists are big news right now, but we must remember that it wasn’t always the case. It took years of persistence and strategising. In the end, communication is (almost) everything.

  7. Thanks, Ethan, for weighing in on this question of “why cover A and not B, if the two stories are similar” question. The commenter above touched on the issue of brain drain in institutionalized anglophone media — no more West Africa correspondents, in the Gabon case, to lobby gatekeeper editors for the importance of that story. I’d quibble with the assertion that no one’s covering it — the wires are, search not “Gabon” but “Reuters Gabon” in Google and you get a nice slate of well-reported dispatches. Broadcastable content is another matter, but the basic reporting is available. So why aren’t editors using that material? A freelancer, I suspect, though can’t quite prove, that it’s mostly a question of editors still confusing information (a tweet saying “they are beating me”) with journalism (a story or set of stories giving the who what where when and why of a violent clash two hours previous). As you and others have pointed out, journalists seeking to cover the Gabons of the world now must convince editors that the presence of new infrastructure (facebook) can greatly improve, but not yet meaningfully replace old infrastructure (a West Africa bureau). This wasn’t a case I had to make ten years ago, and it is a tough one to make, in part because the social networking technologies are such a cheap alternative, and such a sexy one, that one comes off sounding like either a huckster or a prig.

    Always great to read more discussion of this.

  8. Ethan,

    Excellent post thank you.

    I have a question for you:

    With Uganda’s election coming up on February 18 and where Museveni will certainly try to rig the vote: what is your view on what might happen should there be an outcry after the voting is done and the official announcement made by the Electoral Commission?

  9. IMHO no revolution elsewhere has a chance of some media coverage until the situation in Egypt cools down a bit. Currently they dominate the worlds’s news totally; even the situation in Tunesia is nearly out of view.

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  11. I agree with TheK. There was a message on twitter this afternoon, something like, Hurry up Mubarak and get up the stage, the people of #Syria #Jordan #Yemen are waiting. In the first week of #jan25, there were tweets coming across setting dates for the beginning of revolutions in Amman, Damascus, etc. It really does seem critical that each revolution has the world’s attention to maximize the pressure on the autocracy to topple.
    All the same, its a shame that there haven’t been more professional reporters filing with Libreville as their byline this week. I think highly of NY Times’s Adam Nossiter, who I believe is based in Dakar and French-speaking, but I have no idea if its up to him if he bounces over to Gabon to cover a story, or how that gets decided, much less whether the story sees print.
    I hope this momentum spreads in every direction, I hope polls in Niger and Uganda are seen in a different way, with more attention both by foreign press, foreign leaders, and the public.

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  14. Marc, I tried the Reuters Gabon technique you suggested and got nothing on Google News’s English language site in the past week. Nothing meaningful on their French site either… I am sure someone’s producing good wire copy for Reuters, but it’s not making it into outlets Google News is covering, which is not a good thing. TheK, you’re right – Egypt is going to grab all attention, even with Mubarak’s ouster today. In the long run, though, we need to think about creating international media that can focus on more than one story at the same time. Protests in Gabon today spread to the main university in Libreville, suggesting a broadening of base of support, and in Yemen, a demonstration celebrating Egypt’s revolution turned into an antigovernment demo. This popular revolution appears to be spreading, and there’s a danger in having the idea infect a country like Gabon, where no one appears to be watching. If no one is meaningfully covering Gabon, there are very few checks on power, and it’s possible that protests could end brutally and swiftly.

  15. Hello Ethan,
    Thanks for this. Do you have ideas for us about who in the UN and/or elsewhere we should contact in solidarity with the dissidents in Gabon? I’ll forward this to folks in War Resisters International in hopes there are contacts there who may be interested in helping.
    In Peace,
    Sam Diener

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  21. Great post, Ethan. One suggestion: You/we need more photos & video from Gabon.

    I say this as a former staff writer & editor at National Geographic, where few stories exist unless you can literally *see* them. As a word guy, it pains me to admit that — but, for most people, if a democracy uprising is out of sight, it’s also out of mind.

    A related question: How can groups like Global Voices get the mainstream media to focus on what’s happening in Gabon? By demanding that coverage. I’m trying to do as much here — www.societymatters.org. Among my questions for National Geographic CEO John Fahey (see: Dear John: Let’s Talk, in right sidebar) is: Why did National Geographic work so closely with former President Omar Bongo on a conservation initiative that was so deeply & disturbingly anti-democratic?

    John doesn’t want to answer that question — or a host of others I have about democracy, human rights, and free speech, and the future of National Geographic. Any chance you could recommend Society Matters — and “Dear John” — to your followers? (FYI: David Weinberger is on the advisory board of Society Matters.)

    Thanks for whatever help you might be able to provide….

    all the best,

  22. Sam, we’re still getting an understanding of who’s leading the protests in Gabon. At the moment, it appears to be a combination of opposition political forces, and students. If the movement broadens, it may be easier to build connections between movements in Gabon and in the rest of the world.

    Alan, your observation about images and video is spot on. We’ve found with Global Voices that it can be very difficult to get imagery from countries where connectivity is limited. That said, we were able to offer very powerful imagery of Madagascar during protests and I think it helped the few people who read that coverage understand the issues much better.

    Thanks for letting me know about the Society Matters work – I will look into that over the next day or two.

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  27. I stumbled across this article today and by coincidence, I received an email from a friend who is traveling through central Africa early this morning.

    He had just checked into his hotel in Libreville and sent along a link to a similar article (from the Tehran Times, of all things) with a comment:

    “This is pretty funny…Somehow I missed the street protests and tear gas yesterday. How considerate of them to clean it all up before my plane arrived!”

    From what I’ve heard, the “massive street protests” in Gabon consist of a couple dozen (at most) people camped out in front of the UNDP office.

    It’s no wonder the mainstream media are not covering this story. There’s no story for them to cover!

  28. Yes, enormously surprising that there’d be little evidence of demonstrations almost two weeks later, The Africanist. Perhaps you’d care to look at some of the photos, video and other coverage Global Voices has had on the topic.

  29. I was in Libreville two weeks ago, there were no protests. I think Global Voices needs to thier eyes, ears and other senes checked out. With all due respect, you can’t earn any respect/credibility with getting your reporting this wrong!

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  31. I’m the Amnesty International USA country specialist on Gabon. AI does not have researchers in Gabon at the present time, but I have a lot of contacts there and have lived in the country on and off for 2 years or so. Protests have been fairly limited since the first week after Andre Mba Obame declared himself president, in part because the ruling PDG government has been fairly effective in breaking up protests quickly. Several of the protests took place in the Rio and Nkembo neighborhoods are not close to major hotels or downtown Libreville, so people staying at the Meridien or other major hotels would not be able to see or hear them. More importantly, Obame’s Union Nationale party has not yet gained the support of many opposition figures, especially Pierre Mamboundou, whose UPG party is popular in southern Gabon. It was Mamboundou’s supporters who battled police and military units briefly after the 2009 presidential election in Port-Gentil, which constituted the most violent protest to date since the election. Mamboundou went to NYC with Bongo to discuss disputed islands with Equatorial Guinean president Teodoro Nguema this week, which has led to speculation that Mamboundou was been bought off by Bongo (of course, I do not know if that allegation is accurate or not).

    There was one alleged military crackdown on protests in the northern city of Bitam two weeks ago that appears credible to me. It is a possibility that there will be more dramatic clashes in Gabon this week, but I could not say that for sure. Obame announced that he was leaving today the UN building that he and his ministers had occupied at the end of January. Whether or not this will lead to a deal between Obame and the ruling PDG party is unclear – it is hard to imagine a deal given Obame’s move and the PDG’s response that Obame was guilty of treason, but Bongo and the PDG are very concerned about their international image. The Gabonese govt has generally (but not always, as far as I can tell) detained some protesters for a short period of time, in part perhaps because of this concern about Gabon’s image. Another reason may be that the government hopes to demonstrate the weakness of Obame by letting him act without attracting much visible support.

    Reports on alleged human rights violations in Gabon have been largely shaped by Gabonese opposition activists, in part because of the lack of global coverage by intl NGOs like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. AI used to have annual reports on human rights in Gabon until roughly 10 years or so, when AI chose to end preparing reports on each country. Very few Gabonese human rights NGOs exist in comparison to DR Congo or Cameroon, but this is going to change as some people are forming NGOs. Naturally, the lack of intl news agencies and reporters in Gabon doesn’t help matters either. The Gabonese government has not mounted much of an effort to counter online activism yet, although they are starting to respond (there’s an Mba Obame Degage site to compete with the Ali Ben Degage site). I do not check this site often so if anyone wants more, they can email me at jrich at mtsu.edu. I can pass along some contacts as well

  32. What are opposition parties for, if not to try to stir up and promote support for themselves, at any stage of the electoral cycle? They do that in all countries I’m familiar with, Gabon included. Remember, legislative elections are due there later in 2011 – so Obame’s party’s been actively drumming up support (they hope) for themselves, by claiming he won the 2009 presidential election. Well, he came third. Looking at his character – and my God he’s no saint – I’d say he was lucky to garner as many votes as he did. Good luck to him, I say, when he returns to the ballot box, but there’s an unpallatable character if I ever saw one (I won’t get into specifics – there aren’t many ‘clean’ politicians anywhere, are there?). Suffice to say, the only attractive opposition leader is Pierre Mamboundou. Personally I’d steer a wide path around Obame: he gives me the creeps. Many people I’ve spoken to agree he’s as attractive as dirty laundry.

  33. Mais c’est quoi, cette histoire de revolution au Gabon? Ca ne va pas la tete, M. Zuckerman? Certes on a vu plusieurs douzaines de manifestants d’une seule parti politique se promener avec leurs placards et la notion que leur candidat aux presidentielles de 2009 n’aurait pas du venir en troiseme place. Mais personne ne les a pris au serieux – du moins, pas que je ne sache. Depuis quand est-ce que 40 ou 50 personnes constituent-ils “une revolution”? Quand meme! C’est bizarre, c’est bete et vous insultez le peuple du Gabon, franchement. On n’a pas besoin de commentaires de l’etranger qui cherchent a se moquer de nous. Foutex-nous la paix!

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