Protests and Propaganda
Has the power of protest lost its voice? How easily are the people's voices silenced when the media chooses to ignore them?
1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall. A year etched into the consciousness of the Western psyche as capitalism triumphed over socialism. In the same year, the not-so-famous Caracazo protests exploded in Venezuela.
On February 27th 1989, a popular uprising, known as the Caracazo, protested against the structural changes imposed by the IMF. The campaign was crushed by the National Guard, ending with an estimated 3,000 protesters dead. While the Western media focused on events in the Eastern bloc, resistance movements against neo-liberal economic policies across South America gained little attention.
Public demonstrations have been held throughout history, when people have joined together to rally against unpopular policies or forms of injustice. However, media reporting in the West has been selective both in defining what is newsworthy and how events and participants are represented.
When reporting on protests, particularly anti-war or anti-globalisation rallies, the media often side with the establishment. It is no secret that the media and politics are intertwined with hidden agendas and propaganda cemented into mainstream journalism. Considering the scope of Rupert Murdoch’s control in the US and UK media, coupled with the need for corporate sponsorship, the desire for the preservation of the existing socio-economic order comes as no surprise.
As a result, demonstrations against the injustice of the war in Iraq or economic policies harming “developing” nations tend to either be suppressed or poorly represented in the mainstream media. Commitment sways not in favour of objective reporting but in serving the interests of corporations, multinationals, and, in Murdoch’s case, conservative right wing politics.
Media Tenor, a non-partisan media research organization, examined the mainstream media’s coverage across the globe of opposition to the war in Iraq. The BBC came out worst, dedicating a mere 2% of its coverage to opposition views, with ABC following in second place at 7%. At G8 summits, the majority of airtime in the mainstream news has focused on what the politicians’ aims are, rather than the grievances of the protestors and the damages incurred by multinationals and international economic policies.
Rather than presenting protests as attempts to resist or bring about change to the prevailing order, they are often merely presented as disturbing the social order. As such, disturbances become removed from their historical context and instead placed in the sphere of fear of public disorder.
The common image of protestors portrayed in the media is of irrational and potentially violent crowds who need policing, surveillance and controlling. The dominant news image dramatises and sensationalises demonstrations, displaying under-equipped police forces struggling to protect property and order. However, the issue which becomes relevant is: whose law and whose order?
The fear created by the media in creating an image of violent protestors serves to buttress authoritarian responses from the state and legitimate unjust police action. In this way, the state, in conjunction with the media, is able to continue exercising hegemony through cultivating a culture of consent and maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, this serves to conceal the role that states or corporations may have played in causing social tension, and, in turn, absolve responsibility for targeting underlying structural issues.
Brandishing collective movements as violent and irrational not only denies them legitimacy, but also simultaneously justifies “exceptional” responses to maintaining law and order. In January 2003, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) uncovered how the police in Genoa admitted “to fabricating evidence against globalization activists in an attempt to justify police brutality during protests at the July 2001 G8 Summit.” Furthermore, they found no coverage of this revelation in any mainstream US media and only a brief mention in the European media. Indeed, there is little coverage of the criminalization tactics, police misbehaviour, arbitrary arrests and constricted rights protestors increasingly face.
The criminalization of dissent is not only created by the media but has been institutionalized through legislation. The film Taking Liberties (2007) charts the laws that have been introduced under the Blair leadership that have curtailed people’s liberty, such as the right to protest. For example, Section 132 of the 2005 Serious Organized Crime and Police Act made criminal the rights of free expression and association in a one kilometer Exclusion Zone around Westminster. As silencing techniques infiltrate the legal sphere, the British democratic value of the freedom of expression is being undermined.
Another important feature of Western media reporting is the lack of attention it gives to protests in the South. For example, in December 2000, over one million electricity workers in India demonstrated against a proposed bill to implement World Bank prescriptions to privatize the power sector in India. In the same year, 40,000 indigenous people protested against US and IMF-prescribed reforms in Ecuador (who were met by 35,000 military personnel and police).
The great propaganda of omission, exemplified by the under-reporting of the Caracazo protests, continues to be the media’s most powerful weapon in preserving the social order. A couple of months ago, the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called a demonstration against the US presence in Iraq. An estimated one million people attended the demonstration, yet this was given very little attention in the Western media. Instead, the dominant news at the time was the stir caused when Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty in India. The cult of celebrity yet again eclipses historical events serving as a powerful distraction from present-day realities.