The Arab Uprisings reflected on different screens

Many seasons have passed since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. I was recently at a conference that provided an opportunity to think about the many forms of activism that erupted in those heady days, and the aftermath, as reflected on different screens.

Producing Image Activism after the Arab Uprisings

In Bahrain, residents set up roadblocks, ‘teskirats’, to stop police and military vehicles from moving through their neighborhoods. Ala’a Shehabi, Bahraini writer and economist, quickly realized that the teskirats were provocations, a form of grassroots protest with aesthetic overtones. Shehabi opened her presentation with a slide showing women arranging a line of vegetable boxes filled with rocks across their street, to hinder the patrols and register their opposition. People brought out what they had access to, rubble from the streets or old sofas and chairs from their homes, using domestic objects to erect barriers that became part of the battle of images during the uprising. Protesters found ways to mock police, for example, by placing a large teddy bear in one of the chairs. The roadblocks served a practical purpose, built high enough to hide behind during direct confrontations. But they also became gathering places for residents, and created new spaces for children to play. Bahrainis used roadblocks to reclaim their streets, as sites of political action and everyday life.

In another screening, Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi presented excerpts from the transmedial archive she has created as a time-line of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Baladi’s ongoing collection is a bricollage of myths and events, using video, sound, images and new technologies in critiques, often humorous, occasionally outrageous and clearly feminist. As it grows, the archive becomes a means to feed back into the events that took place in Tahrir Square, then and now, and elsewhere. Baladi showed her work at the ‘Tahrir cinema,’ the open air screen that was erected in the square, and these screenings in turn generated new material for the archive.

Over the past decade, the public screen has become a new venue where people gather to view events taking place elsewhere. More important, as these screenings at the ‘Tahrir cinema’ have demonstrated, the public screen brings the events ‘home.’ Watching the events together with others in a shared public space becomes a collective experience, with potential for social and political empowerment.

Karin Becker

Different channels = different agendas?

Issues explicitly related to protests had a marginal influence on this week’s headlines. On Tuesday RT reported on student protests in Paris against police brutality and on Friday Al Jazeera reported on Banksy’s latest West Bank creation, entitled the Walled off Hotel, which was described as part museum, part hotel and part protest site. This can be compared to Trump’s budget announcement that made the first headline on BBCW, Al Jazeera and CNN on Monday.

This observation arguably actualises questions about the possibilities for non-elite actors, such as protesters to enter the media agenda, especially in a media ecology characterized by a greater diversity of outlets. A concept that can help us grapple with this seemingly contradictory shortage of time and space for protest in televised news is what media scholar Daniel Dayan has described as a politics of attention (2009). Dayan use this concept in order to make sense of what he calls sharedness and attention in a media context where the centrality of old already established media outlets has become increasingly challenged by the advent of new outlets and new media technologies.

While channels such as the ones we code in Screening Protest, certainly have contributed to push sharedness and attention outside of territorial geographies by broadcasting beyond the borders of nation states, this week’s headlines certainly question whether this change has corresponded with any significant change in the politics of attention of televised news. That is, has an increase in the number of outlets corresponded with an increased diversity of actors who comes across in the media agenda?

Observations from a single week in 2017 is not enough to help us answer that question. Yet, as we collect and code more and more data, we hope to be able to document this politics of attention, and contribute to a discussion of its implication for activists in an increasingly globalized media ecology.

Creative protests and where to find them

The answer to that would be: in Romania.

Bucharest, the Romanian capital, and other major cities in the country, have seen a week of manifestations triggered by an emergency decree that decriminalized certain acts of corruption in which the prejudice would be less than 44.000 €. Another reason why people expressed their anger in the streets was linked to the fact that this decree was adopted by the Government late at night. This generated a very popular protest slogan: “Noaptea, ca hotii!” – “At night, like thieves”. The Government’s reasons behind this decree was the attempt to reduce the overcrowding of prisons. On Sunday, February 5th, half a million Romanians were out on the streets in all major cities.

But above all, and important to our project, this led to coverage from the global news channels that we have in focus. Though after the first days of protests the issue didn’t come up in the most important news bulletins, those of the evening primetime, as days went by and as the number of protesters out on the streets increased, so did international coverage. The first channel to report on the issue was EuroNews, followed by RT and BBC World. The Romanian protests even made it in the headlines and our global broadcasters sent correspondents on site.

When coding for protest, an important variable is violence: acts of dissent get more coverage if the protests are violent. In the case of the Romanian protests, which are the biggest the country has seen since the fall of the Communism in 1989, violence was nearly absent. Security forces made sure that those instigating to violence were kept away from the manifestation. After that, the protests took quite the opposite turn: protesters brought flowers to the security forces, a day-time protest for children was organized, hundreds of thousands of lights were used symbolically to light up the protest site, Victoria Square, young demonstrators danced in the streets under the praise of other protesters, and even Vlad The Impaler came to offer support.

In the end, the Government repealed the decree but people are still out on the streets demanding Government resignation. The Social Democrats, who are the target of the protests and winners of December’s elections, and especially their supporters, organized counter-protests in front of the Presidential Palace, Cotroceni, asking for the President’s resignation. Klaus Iohannis showed his support for the people protesting, but also stated that the Social Democrats won the elections and should govern the country, but not at any price.

Diana Grecu