Posts Tagged 'tunisia'

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.


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.”


The European switchboard

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent cartoon in The Economist showed Catherine Ashton sitting behind a desk with five telephones. The problem is many people still do not know who Ms Ashton is, what she does or what she looks like. Worse, perhaps, most people don’t give a damn.

The cartoon was an allusion to Henry Kissinger’s famous quip: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” the former US secretary of state once said, in a remark that drove home the old continent’s lack of a single voice. Little has changed since then. As membership has ballooned to 27 states, the European home has remained little more than an amalgam of national fixations, as nation states are reluctant to give up serious chunks of sovereignty.

The Lisbon Treaty, the European Union’s last piece of institutional engineering which was propelled into being in late 2009 following a decade of tedious horse-trading and frustrating setbacks (including an embarrassing rejection by Irish voters in a public referendum), was supposed to change all that by installing a president of the European Council and a foreign policy supremo. However, the subsequent decision to appoint a duo of political lightweights — former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as president and Baroness Ashton, a British Labour peer, as high representative for foreign affairs and security policy — quickly dampened the hopes of Euro-optimists. It was like wishing for the job to be done badly, critics scoffed at the time.

A joke circulating in the corridors of Brussels, The Economist reported, has Ashton informing Hillary Clinton that she now has a single telephone number so that Washington can reach Europe, but when the US secretary of state finally does so, she gets a message: “For French foreign policy, press 1. For British policy, press 2…” Few Europeans would disagree about the switchboard analogy (though, to be fair, #1 should connect you to Berlin).

“We have installed too many phone lines,” said Panayiotis Ioakimidis, professor of international and European studies at the University of Athens and a member of the local ELIAMEP think tank, during a recent discussion at the Foreign Ministry in Athens. “We have five presidents speaking for Europe and that spells confusion,” he said. New posts keep springing up, making the EU look like the Lernaean Hydra of institutions. Next to Van Rompuy and Ashton there is Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup.

The Lisbon Treaty — which followed the ill-fated EU constitution and the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties — was designed to make the bloc more effective, more visible and more legitimate. But success has so far been minimal on all levels. By installing a two-headed presidency, the new blueprint has institutionalized the EU’s split identity at the highest level. Undefined and overlapping duties between the top dogs have occasionally resulted in turf wars while the excessive number of presidents has given the EU more visibility — but not in the way it had hoped. The treaty has at least strengthened the role of the bloc’s perennial underdog, the European Parliament, but has not necessarily made it more democratic. The MEPs may be elected but they are hardly accountable: They are little known to ordinary citizens while the impact of their decisions is limited.

Political pygmy

Impact is also wanting on the global scene as the Union’s diplomatic power is no match for its economic clout — the EU is after all the world’s largest trading bloc. A self-styled champion of freedom and human rights, Brussels has come under fire for its sluggish response to the pro-democracy riots in Tunisia and, more recently, Egypt. “The Tunisians are not going to postpone their revolution for a year so that the EU can issue a response,” Piotr Maciej Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, told the Foreign Ministry discussion.

Nor has the new setup been very impressive in handling the euro crisis. Worse for the federalist technocrats in Brussels, developments like Greece’s near-default and the creation of a bailout mechanism for Europe’s spendthrift countries have shifted power to the governments in Berlin and Paris. “Expectations were too high,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussls. He said some Eurocrats tried to sell the product beyond its real value. “This is obviously not a perfect treaty. However it is the treaty we have to live with for a certain period of time and we have to make the most out of it,” Emmanouilidis said.

Van Rompuy, for one, is certainly trying. The Flemish politician, a devout Catholic with a soft spot for writing haikus, may be an unknown quantity to people outside the small Benelux nation but he has an excellent record of conciliation and negotiation (Belgians refer to him as the “miracle man” for keeping the country glued together). “Tony Blair would be wrong,” Emmanouilidis said of the former British premier who was once favorite for the job. “So would anyone else that would be tempted to behave like a president of the EU.”

It is still too early to judge the EU’s new rulebook. The new equilibrium will take years to consolidate. Unlike Ashton, who seems to have been reduced to switchboard operator status, Van Rompuy is still testing the system to see how far he can go. The Greek debt crisis, where he deftly bridged the original divide between France and Germany, and Belgium’s presidency in the second half of 2010 were a wind of political Fortuna which won him considerable credit. Many critics underestimated the Belgian, Emmanouilidis said, but we should keep in mind that he started from scratch. It is important that the first occupant defines the post for the next generation of council presidents.

The EU has never been great at grappling with the existential question about its place in the world — particularly as its relative weight is in decline. The bloc’s contradictions cause inevitable tension and deadlocks. Progress can sometimes be frustratingly slow. “But when historians look back they will see a treaty that was as important as the Maastricht treaty,” Emmanouilidis said. “It is by no means perfect. It does not give all the right answers. But this is not the end of History.”

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