Posts Tagged 'media'

Covering the refugee crisis: Rules of engagement

moutafis.jpg

By Harry van Versendaal

As soaked asylum seekers in the mud-choked tent city at Idomeni marched through the sprawling camp to protest the border shutdown by authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a rain-drenched Giorgos Moutafis followed them with his camera. Reports the following day said three Afghans were found dead, believed to have drowned when a group of about 20 refugees attempted to cross the Suha Reka river on the other side of the border.

Three days later, sitting inside a cozy and dry theater in the port city of Thessaloniki, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from the makeshift camp, Moutafis discussed the journalistic, moral but also psychological challenges of documenting the ongoing crisis.

“I often take photos and cry at the same time. It is impossible to remain uninvolved emotionally,” he said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year returned with a tribute to migration. Having repeatedly highlighted the subject in previous years, one got the impression that the 2016 TDF was saying, “Told you so.”

As the refugee crisis deepens and the death toll rises, professional reporters often find themselves putting the stringent non-engagement code of principle on the back burner. A photo published by AFP in November showed Moutafis assisting an injured woman lying on the seashore after arriving on Lesvos island.

“You have to tell the story. But you can only go as far as your limits. You have to live with your conscience,” he said.

Since entering the field in 2007, the 38-year-old photographer has covered several conflicts and humanitarian disasters in more than 20 countries for a number of respected international publications including Newsweek, Time, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Recent developments sent him closer to home. He has spent the past year shunting between Idomeni, Lesvos and Kos, the latter two being the eastern Aegean islands on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Moutafis has taken thousands of photos and shot many hours of video footage which he plans to use for a future documentary project. His pictures include dozens of bodies of drowned people that were found on Greek shores, often by him first. He is not apologetic about these images. Instead, he believes that disturbing shots can have a consciousness-shifting potential, or what is commonly called “shock value.”

“I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action,” he said, adding that pictures can and should be taken in a way that shows respect for the subject as well as the audience.

Since January 2014, some 1,161 people have died on the Aegean crossing, according to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We must not allow ourselves to get used to the idea of people dying, we must not allow ourselves to grow immune to this spectacle,” he said.

The debate on the use of graphic images gained fresh intensity last year following the publication of a photograph depicting the tiny body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, face down in the waves. Most newspapers chose to publish the image, although in some cases pixelated. The impact, at least in the short term, was evident as charities supporting migrants and refugees reported a significant increase in donations in the following days.

The iconic photograph was last month recreated by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who lay face down on a pebbled beach on Lesvos. Several critics found the gesture to be in bad taste. In another controversial stunt staged at Idomeni last week, the famous artist set up a white piano in the middle of a muddy field before inviting an aspiring Syrian pianist to play for the first time in years. A tent filled with an actual refugee family and a small campfire was set up next to the piano. Ai said that the act was more than a performance. It was “life itself” and showed that “art will overcome the war.” The artist held a plastic tarp over the pianist to protect her from the pouring rain as she played a rather basic melody. A small group of refugees watched in wonder. One witness criticized the stunt as “cheap and superficial.”

Although art can serve a very real purpose using its own idiosyncratic vocabulary, it is rarely held accountable for its effectiveness or historical accuracy. The media, on the other hand, have an obligation to stick to a more literal language.

“Pompous as it may sound, this is history in the making. As photographers we have a responsibility toward the historians of the future,” Moutafis said.

Dozens of journalists working for the world’s leading news agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera, have in recent weeks flocked to the frontier to cover developments with the help of computers, satellite vans and the latest trend in refugee coverage: drones. When not on duty, you will usually find the pack drying their feet and cleaning their equipment at Asimenia’s, a taverna-turned-media-hub – complete with brand-new Wi-Fi and plug extensions – in the nearby village of Plagia.

Back in the camp, refugees dogged by a shortage of food, medicine and drinking water await the outcome of a key European Union summit with Turkey in Brussels on Thursday. This is unlikely to go in their favor, at least in terms of lifting border restrictions for the more than 45,000 people now stranded in Greece.

In a desperate attempt earlier this week, about 2,000 refugees tried to find a way around the border fence in order to cross into FYROM. Up to 80 reporters, aid workers and volunteers were arrested by FYROM police during the attempt.

As he continues to document their fate, Moutafis remains sober about his part in all of this.

“Let’s not overestimate the photographers’ role here,” he said. “We are not doing anything special. The real heroes are the people living in the mud-bogged tents.”

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

Taking on the pigheaded

By Harry van Versendaal

Speak to Sonja Giese and you’ll immediately understand that the dominant belief that has us think Greeks are an object of stereotyping by everyone in Germany is no more than a stereotype itself.

“Since the outbreak of the crisis, Greek people have been portrayed by the German yellow press and many mainstream media as liars, cheaters, lazy bums and parasites,” she says of the bad publicity the debt-wracked nation has received since striking a bailout deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

“They have been told to sell their islands, to open ‘gyros’ bank accounts, to leave the eurozone and to go to hell,” she says.

Working at the Press and Communications Unit of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament in Brussels, the 32-year-old German knows a thing or two about media stereotyping and perceived prejudice.

“Stereotyping is a common tool used by the media, in advertising and in politics,” she says.

It’s hard to disagree. The European tabloids have been awash with stories about lazy, feckless, work-shy Greeks often recycling exaggerated or simply false data about the country. Experts and politicians at home and abroad have not exactly helped to debunk the recurring myths about Greece.

Visiting Athens earlier this month, European Central Bank executive board member Joerg Asmussen said it was difficult to convince people in states such as Estonia and Slovakia, where the average wage is 1,000 euros, to lend to a country where the average wage in the state sector is about 3,000 euros. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past suggested Greeks don’t work hard enough and take too much vacation time off. If such hyperbole comes from the lips of high-ranking politicians and bankers, there’s not much one can expect from a sensationalist tabloid in Germany or Britain.

Frustrated with the abuse of Greece and the continent’s other so-called profligate eurozone nations, Giese decided to actually do something to fix some of the damage. Together with Mareike Lambertz, a 24-year-old freelance journalist from Belgium, she is launching a photojournalism project titled “We Are the Pigs: A Road Trip to the Epicenter of the Crisis” — a reference to the unflattering acronym used to describe the troubled economies of the European periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

Between them, the pair have plenty of experience in journalism and the audiovisual field — as well as a soft spot for good old black-and-white photography. And they plan to put it to good use. Setting off from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, in early August, Giese and Lambertz plan to tour the so-called PIIGS countries seeking to collect and record personal stories of ordinary people who have been hit by the economic meltdown — but also of people who have not been affected at all. The idea, Giese says, is to show people’s faces, to visit their favorite hangouts and former working spaces, to meet with their friends and families, to document how they deal with everyday life in times of social and economic crisis. “But there is no ready-made script or agenda. We want to be as open-minded as possible,” Giese says.

“We want to show an alternative view of the Greek people. Using photographs and words, we want to show a small part of a reality that is beyond GDP figures, stock markets and rating agencies,” she explains, warning that to target any individual nation is to undermine the European home at large.

“There is no such thing as ‘The Greeks’ or ‘The Germans.’ Stereotyping Greek people as being lazy and untruthful leads to national prejudices among the people of Europe,” she says.

Instead of relying on commissions, Giese and Lambertz are using Startnext, a German crowdfunding platform, to raise money for their project. The duo have already agreed that various newspapers and magazines will run some of their stories and portraits. The work is scheduled to go on display in Brussels, Berlin and Eupen but the list of shows could grow by the time they wrap up the project.

“We want to show our work to a public that is curious and critical about what is going on in Europe. Our goal is to share information and try to change the way it flows.”

http://www.facebook.com/WePigs

Tweeting to the converted

By Harry van Versendaal

Next time you want to get an idea of who is going to win the elections, make sure you log out of your Twitter account first.

“I was led to believe that Drasi would easily gather more than 4 percent,” says journalist Dimitris Rigopoulos, who followed Greece’s recent election campaign through social media.

He was not alone. Stories and discussions trending on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook ahead of the May 6 polls convinced many that the pro-reform, free-market party led by former minister Stefanos Manos would put on more than a decent showing.

In the end, Drasi collected a scant 1.8 percent of the vote, a result that killed its ambition of making it into Parliament. In fact, none of its political kin — Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) and Democratic Alliance — cleared the 3 percent threshold which would grant them seats in the House. Opinion polls, a more traditional tool for measuring voters’ intentions, had safely predicted the failure.

Are people reading too much into social media? Yes, some experts suggest, arguing that the political content of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter is by no means representative of the general population.

“I do think Greece’s liberals are over-represented in the social media, particularly on Twitter,” says Manolis Andriotakis, a journalist, author and social media expert.

Drasi currently has more than 4,800 followers on Twitter (about 4.2 followers per 100 Drasi voters), which is more than half of the 8,140 (about 0.7 followers per 100 ND voters) following New Democracy, the party which came first in the polls.

“Liberals have hijacked Twitter, so to speak, because they realized from early on that social media are basically a platform for debate — and debating is something they like,” says Andriotakis.

Studies suggest the phenomenon is not exclusive to Greece. Scientists at the Pew Research Center in Washington recently found that Internet users who identify themselves as moderate or liberal are more likely than conservatives to be involved in social networking sites.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, has pretty much remained property of leftists given their soft spot for long-winded theories and analyses, says Andriotakis, who is the author of “Blog: News From Your Own Room.” But sites like Facebook and especially Twitter — the revolutionary microblogging tool that limits content to 140 characters — are encouraging bloggers to leave some of their habits behind.

“Social media have pushed these people to become more concise,” Andriotakis says.

The last elections saw Greek parties and candidates embrace social media like never before. Prompted by a lack of cash that took a toll on costly communication campaign tactics such as television ads and leaflets, Greek parties went online to share their message ahead of the vote. Driven by a dedicated crowd of mostly young, tech-savvy staff and supporters, smaller parties in many ways outdid their bigger but slower-moving rivals.

However, some analysts say, if Greek liberal parties enjoyed a strong presence in the social media, it was not because of the ideas they stand for, but because they were alone in openly discussing issues seen as crucial by the local intellectual elite, such as the need for immediate and far-reaching reforms.

“Liberal ideas as such have little influence in Greek society,” journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos observes.

Limited influence

Pro-liberal or not, the overall influence of social media in Greece should not be overestimated. Quite the opposite in fact, as figures show that the penetration of the Internet in Greek homes is surprisingly low. Around 40 percent of people here use the Internet compared with 80 percent in the UK. Less than 2 percent are on Twitter. Using these sites as maps for political behavior is, well, wrong.

“Social media are like a distorting mirror. Those who are most active are part of a self-loving intellectual elite,” Georgakopoulos says. Perhaps you could draw some conclusions from the more mainstream networking sites like Facebook or even from user comments on YouTube, he says, referring to the popular video-sharing site — but again, “they would hardly be representative of society at large.”

Part of the problem is that even those users who do surf the Internet don’t grasp its potential. “A lot of people still browse the Internet in a linear fashion, just like they do with television or a newspaper,” Andriotakis says, meaning that people tend to navigate the Internet in a linear pattern — on click at a time, like it’s a TV or radio broadcast. Users are not the only ones sticking to old habits. While the country’s traditional media have increasingly occupied space on the World Wide Web, they have clumsily used it as a noninteractive, Web-based mirror of their existing content. That said, one should one underestimate the influence of traditional broadcasters on social media. Figures provided by the Harvantics social media metrics website show parties and candidates trending on Twitter and Facebook after appearing on TV.

But while techno-optimists praise social media for providing us with more diverse sources of information — take, for example, the indirect exposure from retweeted messages — skeptics insist that the Internet can, in fact, narrow our horizons.

Businesses try to sway us by tailoring their services to our personal preferences; Twitter tells us who we should follow based on our existing contacts; Amazon recommends books based on our buying history; iTunes suggests songs we might like based on our music library. We, in other words, run the risk of getting trapped in a “filter bubble,” missing out on information and stimulants that could challenge and expand our worldview. Similarly, our Twitter feed can feel more like an echo chamber of like-minded friends.

“You pick your own sources so you are selectively exposed to information. You only see a part of reality. You create your own microcosm. And this is something you need to always keep in mind,” says Katerina Petraki, a public sector food inspector who casually uses Twitter to access views and information that are filtered out of mainstream media outlets.

Not all is bad, of course. It may be that the idea Facebook or Twitter can change your mind-set is an illusion, Rigopoulos admits. “But thanks to the social media, I discovered there are a lot more people out there who actually see things the way I do,” he says.

“It’s not that this community of like-minded people is expanding. It’s just that we get to know each other.”

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

Spoiled by the gods

Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

What does not kill you can make you stronger, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Or, at least, a little bit richer.

Last week, Ukraine announced that the area around the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, will be officially opened to tourists. The former Soviet republic’s emergency situations ministry, the Guardian reported, is planning to offer visitor tours inside the 30-mile no-go zone set up after reactor number four of the powerhouse exploded on April 26 , 1986, sending a radiation cloud over much of Europe – and swarms of panicked consumers here in Greece to the local supermarkets as tons of Dutch-made tinned milk flew off the shelves in just a few hours.

Perhaps Ukraine’s toxic theme park might have a lesson or two to offer us about how to turn disaster into opportunity. Sure, Greece is not some deserted wasteland quite just yet, but it has long been in the “accident-waiting-to-happen category.” A mammoth 110-billion-euro bailout package signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year was generally seen as a last gasp effort to prevent this once-proud eurozone member from defaulting – a lot like patching up a nuclear plant’s cracked sarcophagus. Will the patches hold? No one knows for sure.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the nation has all but hit rock bottom. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that so many of us still refuse to change the way we do things. The crisis, the biggest since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to break with the rigidities, habits and babble of the past. But very few people have seen the crisis as an opportunity, or better, the opportunity behind the crisis.

Our gods are dead, as Nietzsche would have it. But, as the late German philosopher would also say, zero-hour moments like this are not necessarily a cause for despair, but, instead the first step for a reevaluation of our old values. Sadly, no inner readjustment appears to be in the cards here as we still look to the same old gods for succor: populism, nepotism and self-interest.

Take the education sector, traditionally a test site for political experimentation by socialist and conservative governments alike, which is once again being shoved into surreal territory. Only this time it’s the fingers of the academics that hover over the self-destruct button. A government campaign to overhaul the administration of the country’s higher education system is going nowhere as university rectors have rejected every single proposal put forward by the Education Ministry. Rectors said they will not accept any new measures unless these also guarantee a free flow of funds and full independence for the recipients of the cash, i.e. themselves. Rectors, in other words, demand that the state has no say over where its own money goes. The rectors – yes, the nation’s intellectual elite, not some bunch of heavily indoctrinated Communist Party activists – went even further by warning that if the state decides to put its proposals into law, they will refuse to implement them. Adhering to the law, we are told, is a matter of personal preference.

So, before signing a financial memorandum, the Greek government should perhaps have first signed an educational memorandum obliging us to modify the anachronisms that have reduced state schools and universities to a pathetic mess. That does not mean to say that the measures requested by Greece’s lenders – a daunting mix of tax hikes and wage cuts – are not painful, and even brutal at times. In fact, the innocent are the first to suffer as too many babies are being thrown out with the bath water. Like modern-day Stakhanovites, we are told to work harder, for less. But even so, it’s hard to see how we can trim spending and raise enough money to fix the situation, when we have failed to pocket the money that was offered to us in the first place. Last month Greece received a final written warning from the European Commission – the last step before legal action – over hundreds of illegal landfills that are still in operation across the country. Despite the looming fines and an offer by the European Union to fund the construction of new sanitary landfills, Greece has so far failed to deliver. Last week, the dump saga took an ugly turn as angry residents of Keratea, southeast of the capital, clashed with riot police in a bid to halt plans for a landfill. Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, were designated some 10 years ago as the sites where Attica’s new landfills would be built, but the projects have been stalled by legal wrangles and local protests. As a result, Greece is in serious risk of losing the European funds. One would hope that our ostrich-like bureaucrats would, at least, be able to dig a hole in the ground.

The list is endless. This deleterious mix of incompetence, corruption and malgovernance has left nothing unaffected: the judiciary, military, police, church, media, soccer and this miserable excuse for a city – everything is bankrupt. Nietzsche liked to describe truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” This is something our homegrown bureaucrats know all too well. For years, they have used myth to sustain their mojo, cynically clawing their way up the greasy pole of politics. They were not alone in this. It took a huge army of cheerleaders that eagerly blocked streets, waved cheap plastic flags and packed public squares and smoke-filled conference halls, basking in the glow of the like-minded. Now the party is over. But some are still dancing to the tune of yesteryear.

Orgasm Inc.

By Harry van Versendaal

Sales of Viagra, the famous blue pill used to treat male impotence, exceeded $460 million worldwide last year. Imagine how much money could be made from producing a pill for the other half of the globe’s population: women. It’s no surprise that the world’s pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to come up with a pink Viagra.

Liz Canner joined the race in 2002. That was when the 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, in the USA, was recruited by Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company based in California. Her job was to edit erotic videos for women used as test subjects in the development of an “orgasm cream” designed to cure something called “female sexual dysfunction.” In the process, she discovered that “sexual dysfunction” was a catchall term with little scientific value. But there was little point in creating the drug unless the industry first created the condition. As a medical researcher says in the film: “We’ve come up with the drug. Now we have to come up with the disease.”

The fruit of her nine-year research, a 78-minute documentary called “Orgasm Inc,” exposes efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicate female sexual desire – from cosmetic vaginal surgery to Dr Stuart Meloy’s push-button orgasmatron – putting women’s health at risk for profit.

“Orgasm Inc” won the Best Feature award at the Vermont International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary award at the Southeast New England Film Festival, while The Independent magazine last year named Canner one of the top 10 independent filmmakers to watch. The film will be screened at the Orpheas open-air cinema on Kos on Friday, September 3, at 8.50 p.m.

Canner spoke to Athens Plus about the industry of female pleasure.

How did you get involved in this project?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I had decided my next project would be about pleasure; specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an expose but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry, which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

How easy was it to make this film? What were the main obstacles you had to overcome?

It is not easy to make a documentary about the secretive pharmaceutical industry and the media’s collusion with it. It has been quite stressful.

You spent nine years on this project. Has it given you a new perspective on the issue of female orgasm – or lack thereof?

The biggest secret about orgasms is how rarely women actually have them during heterosexual intercourse. One of the women in my film, Charletta, underwent painful surgery to have an orgasmatron device installed in her spine. The only thing that it did was make her leg kick out uncontrollably. Needless to say, it did not work. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble climaxing but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a “normal” way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don’t climax through intercourse alone.

According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies. In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images of fabulous sex in the media and the message that we should have orgasms every time. This is just not accurate. Researchers have found that 70 percent of women actually need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax.

Charletta had been told by the doctor that she had female sexual dysfunction because she was not having orgasms during intercourse. The idea that there’s sexual dysfunction implies that there’s a norm. However, there is nothing that says what functional is. There is no norm — no medical study that says that women should be having five orgasms a month during intercourse or 10 sexual thoughts a day in order to be healthy. So this idea that you can be dysfunctional is problematic. If you create something that makes it appear that there is a function that women should be living up to, it’s quite dangerous. I think that all of us have complaints. I mean, who doesn’t want to have an orgasm whenever they want?

Your film contradicts past reports that some 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. Do you think the figure is arbitrary?

All over the media you hear that a shocking 43 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction. I first heard this statistic when I was working for the pharmaceutical industry in the early 2000s and it surprised me. If so many women had female sexual dysfunction, why didn’t my mother tell me about it and why weren’t my friends talking about it? In fact, I had not even heard of the disease until I took the job with the pharmaceutical industry.

In “Orgasm Inc,” I investigate the history of the 43 percent statistic. It turns out that it was taken from a sociology survey that was conducted in the early ‘90s to find out what people’s sex lives were like. It was never meant to measure the number of women with a disease. Using exaggerated statistics like that manipulates women. It also says to Wall Street that there is a large market for this drug.

Do you think this is a case of disease mongering, as it were, i.e. of the industry trying to convince people there is something wrong with them?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed — when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released, it was such a blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women. The problem was, in order to develop a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD. In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies. This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder, because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think we can’t ignore that. But for the most part, most of women’s sexual problems are caused by sociocultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to overworking.

Could it be that men are simply looking for ways to make up for their failure to stimulate women?

In the United States, part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education for both men and women. In most sex ed classes, the full genital anatomy is not taught. The clitoris, the most sensitive part of the female body, is not mentioned because it is taboo to talk about pleasure. It was surprising to me how many women and men do not know where the clitoris is.

While shooting your documentary, you witnessed the development of a number of treatments. Did any of them seem to work?

In “Orgasm Inc,” I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra. I kept hoping that they would discover a magic bullet but most of the products currently in clinical trials do not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill) and the side effects for many of them are quite horrific – including breast cancer and cardiovascular problems. Part of the problem is that sexual experience is really complicated and based more on context than biology.

In the press you read: “Men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan, because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for? Most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of sociocultural issues. So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse toward women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Isn’t there a percentage of women, however small, that do suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction?

The thing about sexual experience is that our sense of satisfaction comes from our expectations. In other words, if women think that they should be having an orgasm every time they have intercourse, then a lot of women are going to believe they have sexual problems. If women think they should have the same libido at 60 as they had at 20, a lot of women are going to think they have a disease.

Right now, there is a cultural shift going on and medicine is changing our expectations but this is not a new phenomenon. In our grandmother’s time, women with low desire were said to suffer from frigidity. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the pathologizing and medicalizing of woman’s sexual experience was challenged and resisted. Terms such as nymphomania and frigidity were no longer used. Recently, the clocks have been turned back. Low desire is now called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (a subset of FSD) and there are quite a number of drug companies racing to find a nose spray, pill, cream or patch to cure it. By the way, I find it very curious that they’re working on a desire drug for women. Would anybody think to develop a desire drug for men?

It is important to note that some women do suffer from a real physiological problem when they experience a lowering of their sex drive. Radical hysterectomies and some antidepressants affect libido. However, the majority of women do not suffer from a disease. For many of us, our libidos are influenced by everyday life experiences such as aging, our sense of body image, the health of our relationship, stress, and past sexual encounters.

You have taken your film to many film festivals. What has been the response to your work?

It has been exciting taking “Orgasm Inc” to film festivals. We have had many sold-out shows and received a lot of positive feedback. There have been quite a number of times when women have come up to me in tears after a screening and told me that they learned things about their sexual response that they did not know and they feel relieved to discover they are healthy and normal.

Have you had any reactions from the pharmaceutical companies?

When we showed “Orgasm Inc” at Lincoln Center in New York, a woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film. The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Are you working on a new project?

My next project is finally going to be about female pleasure. It is called “The Hidden History of O.”


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