I’m once again locked onto the #Madagascar tag on Twitter, trying to get a sense for what’s going on in the wake of the March transfer of power/revolution/coup. Unfortunately, that tag has been very busy today, as protests erupt into violence and Malagasy citizens find themselves reporting on gunfire in the streets of the capital, Antananarivo.
For those not up to date… for most of this year, Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana has been under intense pressure from an opposition group led by Antananarivo mayor Andry Rajoelina – that pressure stems in part from accusations of corruption and mismanagement by Ravalomanana. In February, Rajoelina declared himself the new President, but wasn’t able to take power. By mid-March, Ravalomanana had lost support of the army (in part because the army didn’t want to shoot protesters, as they did on the tragic Red Saturday) and was forced to step down, and into exile. Rajoelina can’t actually serve as President due to his youth, but has appointed Monja Roindefo and promised elections within two years. Because the government was installed by the army, most nations aren’t recognizing the change in power, and are terming it a coup. (Wikipedia’s article on the crisis is quite good. An earlier summary from this blog might be helpful as well, particularly for understanding underlying factors.)
Today’s violence is connected to demonstrations in support of the ousted president. The military, now in control of Rajoelina and his allies, has been asked to dispel protesters, who have been building barricades and looting shops and buildings. There are no reports yet listing casualty figures, but multiple reports of gunfire suggest that conflicts have been violent at times.
It’s been disappointing to watch Rajoelina, who criticized Ravalomanana’s control of media, ban public demonstrations and crack down on the media. Reporters Sans Frontiers issued a strongly worded statement today (fr) condemning pressure from the new government on media agencies, designed to keep them from reporting on the protests. The nature of that pressure is uncertain, RSF admits – some journalists say they haven’t been prevented from doing their jobs, while others claim they’ve been intimidated and warned off of certain stories. But other actions, like the shutdown of Mada TV – closely associated with Ravalomanana’s supporters – are less ambiguous. The Malagasy media environment is far from open, which makes it hard to track events on the ground, whether you’re inside or outside Madagascar.
I celebrated the use of Twitter by Malagasy friends to report events on the ground in a blogpost a few weeks back, and got gentle but firm pushback from Paul Currion at humanitarian.info, who noted that most of these posts were Twitter users reposting reporting they’d heard on radio or television. Twitter wasn’t responsible for the reporting, he argued, but was being used as a new channel to disseminate journalism. I suggested that, given the confusion around which faction controlled which radio and television stations during the crisis, reporting on which radio station was saying what might well have constituted a form of journalism. It’s an interesting conversation, and not one that’s easy to settle.
But the situation on the ground is different now than it was two months back. Malagasy bloggers, photographers and twitterers are reporting on gunfire in their neighborhoods, and taking photos of armed military personnel confronting demonstrators. These reports by themselves are pretty disjointed and confusing, but the synthesis being offered by Malagasy bloggers and on the Global Voices site are an important journalistic complement to the reporting being offered by wire services like AP and AFP.
The argument about whether citizen media is or isn’t journalism in this context is much less important than the larger question of how bloggers and journalists could help focus more attention on the conflict in Madagascar. As CARE International points out, Madagascar is simultaneously facing a drought, cyclones and political instability. The country is one of the poorest in the world, and is in need of food aid, a need that’s likely to become more acute as the political situation continues to be unstable.
There’s lots of reasons why media attention is important to a country – trade, investment and international support at moments of crisis. Disasters that get a great deal of attention, like the Boxing Day Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, make it possible for organizations like the Red Cross to raise sufficient money to support those affected. Quiet disasters don’t. And Madagascar’s ongoing instability continues to be too quiet, at least in terms of attracting international attention and aid.