This is a copy of an article I was asked to write for the Graduate Times on the way the recent protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have been reported in the western media:
February 4th, 2011. On the newsstand, the grubby pages of the national press present a kaleidoscope of grey to the casual reader, broken only by the salmon pink of the Financial Times. Most of the broadsheets are emblazoned with images of the Egyptian protests, accompanied with attention-grabbing soundbites that glare out of the front pages: “Cairo on brink,” The Times prophesises; “Egypt braces,” The Guardian warns. The words “crisis”, “revolt” and “chaos” are splashed liberally across the pages of every major paper.
Over the past week, media outlets across the western world have been avidly following the unfolding events in North Africa as Tunisians and Egyptians rise up against their oppressive and autocratic leaders to profess their right to freedom and democracy. Every day, we – the western media consumer – are updated with news and stories that detail the rapidly changing events on the ground. And yet, standing in front of the monochromatic array of sensationalist headlines on the newsstand, there is an inescapable feeling that something is missing.
To take one example, earlier this morning a journalist on BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today Programme reported that protestors in Tahrir Square in central Cairo were arranging themselves to spell out the word “freedom” – the journalist went on to comment that “I’m not sure if that is in English or in…er…Egyptian” This blatant lack of cultural knowledge (note: Egyptians speak a form of colloquial Arabic – there is no such language as “Egyptian”) is as surprising as it is worrying, and should lead us to question the authority of western journalists whose reports and dispatches we have been consuming. Which presupposes another, more important question: exactly how reliable has the western media been in reporting ongoing events in the Arab world?
There are several criticisms that can be levied at the media in the continuing furore, the first of which being that events in Egypt and other Arab countries have highlighted the ignorance and prejudices of many mainstream journalists when it comes to reporting on the Muslim world. Even if we disregard blatant mistakes such as Fox News’ purported lack of basic geographical knowledge (a picture of a Fox News broadcast showing ‘Egypt’ to be located in Iraq went viral on twitter earlier this week, although there are rumours that it may have been a hoax) and the BBC’s evident linguistic ignorance, there are still gaping holes in the narrative of events portrayed by the press and broadcasting channels – holes that are all too often filled haphazardly with scaremongering reports about the Muslim Brotherhood or the rise of Islamism.
The problem with relying on mainstream news channels to inform us about events in Egypt (and the wider Arab world) is that the journalists involved often have only a basic understanding of the cultural, political and ideological nuances of the region, and therefore can only offer their audiences crude outlines of the situation there. Much like a small child trying to use a pair of scissors for the first time, more often than not these outlines will be jagged, rough and incomplete.
Of course, there are a number of eminent journalists and news presenters (Robert Fisk of The Independent, to name but one) who are specialists on the Middle East and have a deep understanding of the Arab world – they, together with think tanks and political analysts, have helped in providing a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground. Quilliam, a London based anti-extremism think tank, for example, published a report on the Tunisian and Egyptian protests at the end of last week in which they explored the lack of extremist or Islamist rhetoric in the Egyptian public discourse. Indeed, the secular and democratic nature of the protests thus far has been widely discussed by those journalists and analysts who take an interest in the region (it was a major part of a panel discussion held at the Frontline Club for Independent Journalism on Wednesday February 2nd) – but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the mainstream news sources.
Yesterday the Telegraph published an editorial entitled “Egypt: Zealots waiting in the wings” which claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood were merely biding their time and that the current crisis would prove the perfect opportunity for them to instigate an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. The piece concluded with a quote from the Brotherhood’s manifesto to back up this unfounded assumption: “‘Islam hooah al-hal,’ read the Brotherhood’s pamphlets: ‘Islam is the answer.’ It is a vague and evasive slogan, the meaning of which the world is likely soon to discover.”
The truth is that the situation in Egypt, and across the Arab world as a whole, is far more complex than many commentators realise – the inevitable result of this is that public opinion in the west is being polarised into a monochromatic view on issues that are really more grey than black or white. But even if we can’t rely on the mainstream media to paint an accurate picture of events in the region, there are a variety of other platforms – increasingly in the form of social media and the internet – from which we can glean a variety of uncensored information. Even a cursory glance at twitter, facebook, tumblr and other such websites is enough to see that there are a whole host of voices out there who are providing their own individual take on what is happening, many of those voices are actually there, in the thick of it all, and are able to provide first-hand eyewitness accounts unmitigated by the biases of the national and international media agenda.
The situation in Egypt and across the region is proving volatile and highly unpredictable, but if there is anything we can learn from events of the past few weeks it is that the voices of the people will not be silenced, and that, increasingly, they are choosing the internet and other informal broadcasting platforms to relay their message to the outside world