Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The revolution will be hashtagged:
The new rules of media engagement

“Yemen is not Tunisia.” Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, January 2011

“No, Egypt will not be anything like Tunisia.” Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman, February 2011

“Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt.” Saif Gaddafi, February 2011

In the last month, the leaders of some of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes have adopted a startlingly similar approach to the uprisings in their midst — a ring of populist fire that’s engulfed countries from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen to Bahrain. (Rumblings of less deadly unrest have also been heard in Morocco, and even Jordan, a bulwark of stability and tolerance in a region known for anything but.)

The leaders in each of the more oppressive countries all read from the same dog-eared playbook: put down the reform-minded protesters hard, violently if necessary; reassure the outside world that business as usual is the order of the day; hunker down at the palace/compound/bunker and wait for the military to do its brutal work; steadfastly deny that what’s playing out in one country will be the same as what’s already happened in another.

But the past four weeks have shown that millions of the residents of these countries are tearing up that playbook in a drive to create another one. Coincidentally, the mainstream media struggling to cover this exploding story in something close to a comprehensive way is finding that its old playbook is in for some revisions, too.

The epicenter of revolt in the Arab world has shifted to Libya, where tens of thousands of people have hit the streets in the last seven days to protest against the regime of tinpot cartoon Muammar Gaddafi, for 42 years the country’s unquestioned leader.

Tanks have been reported firing on demonstrators; other eyewitness accounts recall snipers firing on demonstrators from nearby buildings. The uprising that started in Benghazi spread, in varying degrees, to Tubruq, Darnah, Shahat and Al Baida, finally coming to fever pitch in Tripoli.

At least two pilots from the Libyan Air Force have flown to nearby Malta, defecting after refusing to fire on their own people. Several Libyan government functionaries and diplomats have reportedly resigned, including the deputy ambassador to the United Nations. The Libyan strongman recently dispatched his son, Saif, to speak on his behalf. On Monday, Abdel Elhumi resigned his post as Libya’s ambassador to the 22-member Arab League, saying that Gaddafi was “over, finished ... he lost the people.”

TechnoV at YouTube: “when you start bombing your own country with war planes ... yeah you’re going down”

Human Rights Watch, an independent organization monitoring unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere, reported Sunday that 233 people had been killed in Libya since the unrest started. On Monday, HRW researcher Heba Morayef told one news outlet that “we’re hearing right now that there may be as many as [another] 30 people killed overnight in Tripoli.”

What people in Libya and others around the region are increasingly a part of is nothing less than the 21st-century way of waging warfare.

Years ago, Gil Scott-Heron wrote and recorded the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The title was, among other things, a counterculturish snarl that railed against the banalities of conventional media as much as the improprieties of the government.

That phrase was more prescient than he could have imagined. Thanks to the viral, fluid, slippery nature of communications in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the populist outrage in the Middle East has dissolved geography, moving faster than governments can effectively mount measures to stop it. Journalistically, it’s a story that’s moving faster than the conventional media is able to cover it.

RT @pressfreedom: Critical Libyan journalist Atef al-Atrash, missing since #Feb17 #Libya

Because of that, the standard media outlets, barred from reporting in some countries altogether, have been forced to rely on social media tools they can’t fully control, even as they seek to embrace those tools.

They go on the air saying that reports of violence in one location or another can’t be “independently verified” because their people aren’t on the ground to see it. It’s a journalistic variation of the old dilemma about “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” — as though the existence and gravity of events was somehow dependent primarily, or even largely, on their ability to record those events.

RT @JawazSafar: Activist: North Misratah City is being bombarded by tanks #Libya #Feb17

The Egyptian revolution (shorthanded in Twitterspeak as #Jan25), the revolt underway in Morocco (dubbed #Feb20) and the Libyan uprising (#Feb17) are evidence of just how independent the process of gathering vital information can be, when it has to be.

The established networks and news orgs are enamored of putting their branded spin on reporting, and they’re often resistant to interlopers who report a story without the imprimatur of a major news organization. It’s a situation in which the “little guy” is shunted to the periphery for reasons of professionalism, resources and experience. You can almost hear big media’s disdain when they speak of the need for “accurate reporting” and information that’s “independently verified.”

But what would television cameras from the networks see any differently, what would official reporters interpret any differently than the indifferent turmoil recorded in the raw footage coming from citizen reporters?

In the midst of riot and rage, would a credentialed journalist have more access to credible information than the average person in the street? Would the chaos be any less indiscriminate to a journalist from an established news org than it would be to anyone else?

Lara Logan of CBS News — beaten and sexually assaulted while covering recent events in Cairo — would almost certainly say no right now.

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As the violence intensifies, and American embassy officials and workers are spirited out of these countries journalists can’t get into, what’s left is an absence of information from the so-called credible sources.

Journalists can’t hope to talk to the usual ”government officials” in their contacts list — the ones in the presidential palace and the offices of the interior ministry. In the case of a broad and seemingly open-ended revolution like this, those are the same people under attack.

Government officials are useless as a source when the government is under siege. That creates a vacuum that’s necessarily filled, in part, by some of the only people who can do it: the twentysomething with a Flip camera, a cell phone, a reasonable command of English and the courage of a citizen with nothing, and everything, to lose.

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Make no mistake, the new rules are every bit as reliant on the facts as they’ve ever been. What’s changing is who is doing the reporting. The ability to report — to interpret events on the spot, to ask pertinent questions, to provide context, to use visual language and to report available data from established sources, human rights groups and medical authorities — is no respecter of a degree from Medill or Columbia.

We’re seeing a revolution in newsgathering as surely as a revolution of disaffected millions through the Arab world. The pattern and practice of global newsgathering —the rules of engagement, if you will — are evolving. That need to change is coming amid a social and geopolitical transition that's occurring almost faster than the established protocols of journalism can adapt.

We got a taste of this during the Iranian situation back in June 2009. The current burst of demonstrations in the Middle East proves even more convincingly that the revolution won’t (necessarily) be televised; it’s being tweeted and friended and hashtagged. The need for reporting this story today is no less urgent than it would have been in an earlier, more formalistic newsgathering era. What’s different today are the boots on the ground available to do it.

Image credits: Shoe on Gaddafi poster: Amr Abdallah/Reuters. Libya map fragment: Al Jazeera. #Feb20 logo: Source unknown.

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