Sunday 30 December 2007

Georgia: Going off Script

The Guardian ran this on 30 December 2007.


It is almost certain that the first serious international media story in 2008 will be Georgia's early presidential election on 5 January. Incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili and his western supporters hope the results are equally predictable.

Because Saakashvili seriously tarnished his international image as a pro-western democratic reformer in November when he authorised violence against peaceful protesters and independent journalists, the upcoming vote is more than an exercise in domestic legitimacy. It is a show targeting a world audience, and for those who uncritically support Saakashvili, the script is plain. The world's media will arrive just after New Year's Day. They will report a relatively free and fair election. Then, everyone will get back on the plane amid a buzz of, "Georgia is back on track."

Indeed, election observers may give the poll an overall clean bill of health. The conduct of the vote will not be as ideal as some heavyweight western parliamentary observers will boldly claim in front of the TV cameras in the days immediately afterward. Already the opposition has cried foul, and non-governmental organisations following the process are claiming irregularities in the campaign. But even the less spotlighted and more technocratic Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which has enormous experience in observing elections within the 56-country zone of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will probably not find too many grave shortcomings on election day. However, one decent election is not enough to get this country "back on track", because Georgia has been sliding off the rails towards authoritarianism for several years.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 seemed a fairy tale made for western television. As the cameras filmed, demonstrators gathered and stormed the parliament in Tbilisi, toppling a tired post-Soviet state using little but pro-democracy slogans and youthful charismatic leadership. After that, Saakashvili was unquestioningly supported as the plucky easternmost flag-bearer of liberal democracy, under siege by revanchist Moscow. Like all good political myths, this one contains some elements of truth.

Saakashvili came to power with enormous public support, and his declared intention to join Nato and the EU established his international leanings. His sweeping reforms have reshaped the failing state institutions and rejuvenated the dysfunctional economy, attracting foreign direct investment and enhancing state revenues. Small-scale corruption, which used to cripple Georgian society before the Rose Revolution, is down dramatically.

In this context, it may be possible to overlook the occasional excess of decisiveness, especially in a country that feels itself under attack. Resurgent Russia has, after all, applied economic embargoes and supported secessionists in Georgia's conflict regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Trying to stitch together a state torn apart by war and economic collapse in a poor and hostile neighbourhood requires enormous force of will. Unfortunately, however, admirable resolve has too often turned into disturbing heavy-handedness. The November 7 crackdown and the imposition of a state of emergency was a symptom of a much deeper problem.

Over the past four years, Saakashvili and a small circle around him have concentrated power in their own few hands, and they have been unwilling to accept criticism. Cronyism, the bane of pre-Rose Georgia, is again said to be flourishing in the senior level of the administration. The leadership elite has worn down fundamental checks and balances to enhance its own power, and it has curtailed basic human rights such as freedom of expression.

In fact, it was the government's repeated lack of responsiveness to the demands of the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens for transparency, accountability and credible investigations into high-profile cases of official abuse that led to mass public protests in autumn. The leadership's violent crackdown was a depressingly magnified continuation of this overall trend.

International journalists covering the elections at the beginning of this year would be well advised to avoid the scripted show. Election observers will report what they see on the day of the vote and in the weeks leading up to it. Visiting western parliamentarians will likely clutch at any straw to give a boost to Saakashvili, who retains enough revolutionary charm to keep them smiling for the cameras.

The press can look deeper, however, and bring out what has been going on in the country over the past four years. If they ask the right questions, perhaps western policy-makers will too. Saakashvili should not expect to remain in the west's good books if his administration continues along its increasingly illiberal path.

Saturday 15 December 2007

US: No Satire, No News

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlerNet blog on 15 December 2007.


Everyone who thought American television news couldn't get any worse has been proven wrong in recent weeks, as the writers' strike has shut down the satirical news shows where so many people get their news these days. Yes, it's not just drama and sit-coms that have been hit by industrial action by the Writers Guild of America, Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report" have also been in reruns since early November.

We're not talking about the loss of a couple comedy shows here. With the cliff-dive dumbing-down of US TV news over the last decade or so, these satirical news programs have become primary sources of information for millions of Americans in recent years -- particularly younger and more educated ones. The loss is felt, and there is a growing public debate about its impact on politics.

Monday 10 December 2007

Belgium Is Not Rwanda

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 10 December 2007.


Blaming the media is an easy game every politician plays, but here in Belgium, it has just taken a step -- more like an enormous leap -- too far. After spending ages trying to form a government with no success, Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat leader, lashed out at French-language state broadcaster RTBF, comparing it to Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda.

While Leterme's general state of frustration may be somewhat understandable -- today marks six months to the day since the general election in June, and still Belgium has no new government -- that can be no excuse for throwing perspective out the window as he did in an interview with Flemish newspaper Het Belang van Limburg on Saturday. It is an insult to the intelligence of the Belgian public and to the victims of Rwanda.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the private radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines was the "Hate Radio" inspiring Hutus to kill Tutsis en masse, using terms like "final war" and calling on listeners to "exterminate the cockroaches". The broadcaster was not just an appendage of the genocide; it was its nervous system, relaying commands and directly inciting murders.

Comparing the textbook example of media driving violent conflict to RTBF and the political discord in Belgium today is lunacy. Leterme may be angry with the Belgian broadcaster and may even blame it and its "political agenda" for complicating his attempts to form a government over the past half year. But please, let's not get crazy. This is Belgium 2007, not Rwanda 1994.

In fact, you'd hardly notice this country is going through much of a crisis at all. The schools still work well, the trash continues to be collected twice a week, the taxes are still too high, and the beer is as good as it ever was. The public debate in the media seems very calm and reasoned -- RTBF has even invited Leterme to discuss his comments on air. People are concerned about the future of their country, and indeed it may even split some day (I hope not though), but there is zero possibility of violence. And no one is encouraging it, least of all the media here.

The Association of Professional Journalists of Belgium has strongly condemned Leterme's comparison, and Belgian Radio and Television Minister Fadila Laanan has called it "abominable". Indeed.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

EU-Africa Summit: Get Beyond Bob

From my Reuters AlertNet blog on 4 December 2007.


Here's a challenge to all European journalists intending to write about this weekend's EU-Africa Summit: deal with real issues that may have an effect on people's lives, not invented ones that politicians use to aggrandise themselves. In short, skip the flap about Robert Mugabe's attendance, and go directly to substance.

Some may say this is hard to do. No doubt editors back home are baying for Bob, so they can cover what they assume people are interested in -- mostly because the competition is working under the same assumptions. Of course, in doing so the media gatekeepers have to consciously ignore their duty to inform the public as well as the opportunity they possess to set the agenda.

There are at least a dozen much more critical issues this EU-Africa Summit raises.