… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

February 19, 2009

Watching Madagascar, via Twitter

Filed under: Africa — Ethan @ 2:30 pm

The nature of breaking news is changing. Recent breaking stories, like the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, have been simulcast on mainstream news sites and via social media like blogs and twitter. To stay up to date, I’ve increasingly found myself triangulating between traditional and new media, sometimes frustrated by the speed of rumor spread in new media, sometimes moved by the personal, direct and eyewitness perspectives I’ve gotten from individuals directly affected by attacks.

The (confusing, apparent, partial, incomplete) coup in Madagascar is the first event I’ve been able to watch only through social media.

Madagascar has had a political crisis for several weeks. The may of the capital city, Antananarivo, and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina has been urging supporters to occupy government buildings, allowing his TGV party to take control of the government. Rajoelina argues that he’s taking control from a corrupt and dictatorial president, Marc Ravalomanana, who he accuses of manipulating the Malagasy economy to benefit his own businesses. President Ravalomanana views Rajoelina’s actions as a coup, and has fired him as mayor of Antananarivo and is struggling to maintain control.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been tense standoffs between protesters and government forces. One of these standoffs descended into burning and looting, killing dozens. Another involved the government firing on protesters as they marched towards the President’s residence. I’ve detailed some of the events on my blog, and Global Voices has very thorough coverage of the events.

Today, Rajoelina’s supporters have apparently seized four ministries – the police, interior, education and “territory” ministries. According to my friend Lova Rakatomalala, “Consensus so far is that seizing of ministry buildings does not give TGV the control of the government.”

It would be hard to get a sense for that consensus by reading English-language media. Google News doesn’t have any breaking news from Madagascar – my last search turned up a 13-hour old story about the opposition’s threats to occupy buildings (and dozens of stories about the Dreamworks film.) While the New York Times’s Barry Bearak is one of the few US reporters to have meaningfully addressed the Madagascar story, the Times site doesn’t even have a newswire story about the current situation. And while my French sucks, my sense is that there’s not a ton of coverage there – a short piece just went up on Le Monde based on an AFP story.

So I’m doing what my Malagasy friends across the net are doing – religiously watching the #Madagascar tag on Twitter. That means I’m primarily reading Thierry Ratsizehena, a marketing and social media expert in Antananarivo, who is listening closely to news via television and radio, and sharing what he knows with his Twitter readers. Lova, who’s in the US, is translating his tweets into English and adding context and commentary. The two make a pretty effective news bureau, helping interested readers understand the few facts we’ve got from the ground and the numerous unanswered questions.

What we know:
– Four ministries are occupied by the opposition TGV. The party’s leader, Rajoelina, has asked his supporters to continue occupying the buildings, and some supportive crowds are surrounding buildings and chanting.

What we think we know:
– The President hasn’t been heard from, but his Prime Minister is evidently calling members of parliament to ensure they have support.
– The armed forces held TGV forces outside their building for some time today, and eventually let some TGV figures inside to negotiate, perhaps to avoid violence.
– The events today appear to be largely nonviolent.

What we don’t know:
– Whether TGV will continue seizing ministries, or whether the President will try to use the armed forces to oust TGV and arrest Rajoelina
– How much public support there is either for the existing government or for TGV.

Confused? Yeah, so’s everyone watching this story. Which is why I wish we had more reporters on the ground and more analysis coming out.

The population of Madagascar is more than 20 million – roughly that of Australia. I realize this isn’t a helpful comparison, but I can’t help returning to the idea that there are roughly twice as many people in Madagascar than in Israel and Palestine, a part of the world where even minor political developments are followed around the world with passionate interest. I understand that the future of Madagascar probably won’t affect the future of US/Middle East relationships and that the Malagasy diaspora tends to be a lot quieter than supporters of Israel and Palestine… but it seems crazy that there’s apparently a single AFP stringer bringing this conflict to the world’s attention.

My work over the years suggests that you’re lots less likely to get media attention if you’re poor, far away, speak languages other than English and not involved with global terror or American military operations. Madagascar loses on all fronts. I’m proud that Global Voices is doing a good job of covering this story, but really wish we had a bit more company.

17 Comments

  1. Thanks Ethan for your interest in Madagascar and your sharp summary.

    You are right, Malagasy diaspora is always very quiet but there are few trying to attract decision makers and politicians in charge in Europe and the US.

    Anyway, whatever anyone point of view (Pro or Con’s the President Ravalomanana or the Mayor Rajoelina), this is a putch.
    You could call it as a pacific putch but it is still a PUTCH.

    The point is to figure out how could Madagascar will put in confidence investors after this kind of ‘coup’?.

    The only way to change a regime is through the ballots and we do not know that.

    Solofo

    Comment by solofo Rafeno — February 19, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  2. Thank you Ethan for all your support through the last past days and to all GV bloggers for relaying on the news. What is going on in Madagascar (sadly it’s spreading to the provinces) is beyond anything we’ve seen before. We’re more used to peaceful manifestations and even if some are used to the shouting and grounding, most of the time Malagasy are silent and praise the virtues of “fihavanana” which is “kinship, friendship, goodwill between beings”. Let’s say :we’re used to think we’re all somehow related (blood, socially…) and don’t want to harm one another even if though the countries present 18 ethnicities!
    From the Citizen Media point of view, since we’ve been working from this field for a year now, it’s still very tough to convince Malagasy to be part of this movement. Foko has been leading campaigns in many provinces and have a strong network with many bloggers that has proven themselves very capable of promoting social causes and activism. But there is still a lot of work to be done. Most of the Malagasy who are priviledged enough to have internet at home to dispatch to the global community are starting to sense the rise of citizen journalists and are willing to relay their work but most of the time they use the content for partisan purposes and discredit the work.

    Comment by joan — February 19, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

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