There is a sense of doomed inevitability when you open a newspaper (or load a webpage) these days and see the word “Syria”. Cue a mass of words describing, in grim detail, the most recent “massacre”, “tragedy” or “catastrophe” that has befallen the Syrian people.
We as journalists all know that sensationalism and sob stories sell papers – that’s why there is such an abundance of them in the mainstream press – but the need to sell a story shouldn’t overshadow the need to portray every side of the argument; to outline the whole picture in as much detail as possible. In the 14 months since the beginning of the mass uprisings dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ the news has followed the toppling of dictators across the Arab world with a mixture of awe and exhilaration. But what happens when the cameras turn away, the dictaphones are switched off and the world’s attention moves to the newest source of sellable news stories – in this case, Syria?
Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain. These are all countries that have seen significant protests and (in all but Bahrain) complete changes of leadership in the last year, and yet how many of us, as journalists, as citizens, are aware of what is going on in those countries now? The constant obsession with seeking the newest and most sensational news story sometimes means that the most important stories – the ones about how a country rebuilds itself in the wake of a popular revolution – are sidelined or ignored.
How many British journalists are aware of the new Salafyo Costa group of “liberal” Salafis that has sprung up in Egypt since the revolution; or the abundance of political street art daubed on the streets of Cairo (below) and Alexandria? How many have thought to write about the fate of Shia minorities in post-revolutionary Egypt, or the rise of underground music in Libya and Tunisia?
This notion of a “Twitter Revolution” is as dangerous as it is misleading, causing us to amplify people and events whose overall role in the current changes might not be as great as the social media world imagine them to be. Take Wael Ghonim, for example, for all intents and purposes he is just another member of Egypt’s young, web-savvy generation – and yet he has been put on a pedestal by international media. In a talk recently at the LSE in London, Ghonim urged people to look beyond Facebook and Twitter and to see the crucial work being done by ordinary Egyptians to rebuild their country. But in vain.There are so many stories that have been forgotten by the mainstream press at a time when the Arab world is most in need of an accurate and nuanced media image. As Al Jazeera’s Senior Political Analyst Marwan Bishara points out in his recent book The Invisible Arab, too many of the stories already out there rely on the dated (and frankly rather patronising) argument that it was the (Western) technologies of social media and the Internet that liberated an “oppressed” and “passive” people – forgetting the long history of political rebellion and activism that exists throughout the Middle East.
The second problem with this rhetoric is that it places too much emphasis on the act of rebellion, and not enough on the consequence. Yes, there have been revolutions in the Arab world. But unless these political changes are sustained and upheld by hard work on the ground now and in the future, the danger is that these countries will slip back into their old-established – and entrenched – systems.
In an age when anyone, anywhere, can be a journalist, it is nothing short of shameful that the mainstream media rely on such dated and out-of-touch notions of the Middle East and Arab world on which to base their news reports. There are myriad forgotten stories of the Arab Spring just waiting to be told, and it is our duty – as journalists, as citizens, as humans – to tell them.
Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East, and blogs and tweets about anything that takes her fancy.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look