The context was missing. Yes, for 18 days the world was transfixed on the people’s uprising in Egypt. Would they succeed, or would they be crushed? Was this going to be another Tiananmen Square? Could a disparate crowd of people of all classes, creeds and ages really shake up a dictatorship that had ruled for 30 years? Yes, they did succeed and no, they were not crushed.
But as with all events, even momentous ones like the January 25 uprising, the media deals with them as they happen and leave the reader/viewer not much wiser about the context.
For the Indian audience, Egypt rarely features anywhere apart from travel columns. So when the first reports appeared on BBC and CNN, and in some newspapers, most Indians would not have understood why this was happening. The earlier uprising in Tunisia got very little coverage in the Indian press. And despite Al Jazeera English being available in India now, it is still not widely seen in the country as cable operators and DTH platforms are still not relaying it.
What was not reported, either by the foreign channels, or by the western media as reproduced initially in Indian newspapers, was the state of affairs in Egypt before January 25. How high were poverty levels and unemployment? To what extent did crony capitalism operate? How extensive were the emergency powers of the government and human rights abuses? What was the status of women, of literacy, of healthcare, of child survival? Was this ancient civilization just a “stable” autocracy because the West preferred it to be just that, or did Egyptians have ideas about the kind of system of governance they desired? If they could not express their views through normal channels, like the media that was entirely government controlled, then where and how did people talk about alternatives? So many questions, yet so few answers even if you watched each day of the 18 days leading up to Mubarak’s exit.
Occasionally you did get a glimpse of another story. For instance, John Simpson of the BBC, did travel outside Cairo and spoke to fishermen at a seaside resort, normally packed with tourists. The only information they had was from state television. And from it they learned that all the trouble that was turning away tourists and therefore impacting their livelihood, was the work of ‘foreigners’. Simpson and his crew had to be rescued by the Army as the crowd got belligerent.
Through that short news feature, you got a sense of the state of affairs outside the national capital, and the extent to which the state controlled media affected attitudes. It reminded me of the days of the Emergency in India, when press censorship had closed off all avenues to independent information about developments in the country. The vast majority of people got their information from government-controlled All India Radio and Doordarshan. And from these channels it seemed all was well and that the government and Sanjay Gandhi were sincerely implementing the 20-point programme for the benefit of people, and that Indira Gandhi had been compelled to impose Emergency because of the troublemakers out to destabilize India. The 1977 elections allowed the steam to escape. Otherwise one wonders how long India too would have accepted a dictatorship masquerading as democracy, assisted by a controlled media.
The change in Egypt is because despite state-controlled media, information today just cannot be blocked, thanks to the Internet. And for the Middle East, in particular, the existence of a channel like Al Jazeera is clearly beginning to make a difference.
Of course, every channel has its biases. But the difference between a channel based in the Middle East and those outside could not have been more apparent than during the 18-day uprising in Egypt. While the western channels obsessed about the impact of any change on the geopolitics of the Middle East, Al Jazeera informed viewers about the realities in Egypt, including the background of some of those in power who were billed as acceptable faces to replace Mubarak. While BBC and CNN kept raising the spectre of an Islamist takeover – more CNN than BBC – we learned from Al Jazeera and from the voices of the participants the fact that this uprising had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, which only joined in later.
For a nuanced understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood one had to trawl the Internet or read a paper like The Guardian, which ran a long interview with its leader. Or read Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent of The Independent. Or listen to Al Jazeera English to understand the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, what it stood for, and how far it could go in Egypt.
Yet, despite people on the ground and several scholars reiterating that the Muslim Brotherhood did not instigate the January 25, the bogey kept appearing. It sprouted discussions around whether Islam and Democracy were compatible. Perhaps this is a valid subject in the face of the absence of democracy in so many Islamic countries, but coming at a time when people in Egypt, regardless of whether they were Muslims or Christians, were crying out for a “secular, modern, democratic” Egypt, a phrase one heard repeatedly from the people at Tahrir Square, surely the perspective from the ground had to be given some validity.
Unfortunately, the Indian media failed to develop a clear perspective on its own. To its credit, at least some media houses did send out correspondents to report directly, rather than depending on reprints from The New York Times or western news agencies. And most newspapers carried strong editorials supporting the developments in Egypt. Indian television did not do anything distinctive in its reportage barring Barkha Dutt’s documentary on “The Women of Tahrir Square”. Even some of the debates on TV, with the usual talking heads, seemed to take their cue from subjects discussed on Western channels – such as whether Islam and democracy are compatible (CNN-IBN).
The coverage of Egypt in the Indian media illustrates how we give far more importance to developments in the western world than in parts of the world with which we have more in common and strong links. For instance, Egypt and India have been closely allied for decades. Yet, so little is written about Egypt in the Indian media except in the context of the Middle East crisis. Even developments in countries like Thailand, or Indonesia, or Vietnam, rarely find space on our international pages unless there is a crisis of major proportions. As a result, even the discerning Indian reader or viewer will know little about such countries when a crisis compels media attention.
(To read the original, click on the link above)