Political protests in Egypt just can’t get no attention

Some say with social media, citizen journalism, and all kinds of grass-root reporting, we’re getting a better picture of the world as it happens.  Many cite the roles played by witnesses and bystanders during the Delhi siege and Iranian protests, as a testament that we are better off and more informed now with the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

I am still somewhat skeptical with those claims.

It’s certainly easier for news items to go viral and bombard us from every direction (in that, yes, if the news is important enough, it will get to us).  But there’s a lot of politicking that goes on behind the scene, in deeming what kind of news are worth the fanfare, and which ones are not.

Case in point: Egypt versus Iran.

Iran is deemed a hostile state by most of the western world, a scourge in a volatile region of the world. So unsurprisingly, it got ample coverage last year during the election and protests that followed.

Egypt, on the other hand, poor but a steady ally (the second largest aid recipient of the US, next to Israel), is only heard in the western media in connection to the Gaza, its vastly oversold tourism industry, or at worst, pollution in Cairo or of the Nile.

I lived in Cairo for three months a couple of years ago.  From what I’ve seen and experienced, and continue to hear through friends, it is a police state through and through.  It’s a place where dissents are repressed and persecuted, where the majority of its people live in poverty, many in utter misery.  There is nothing hyperbolic about the sorry state of Egyptian politics, where one strong man has dominated the regime for three ruthless decades.

But against all odds, some people do want to speak out.  But nobody’s listening.  Consider a rough comparison of our contestants again, Egypt versus Iran:

[P]opular feeling against the Mubarak oligarchy here is just as real as anti-Ahmedinejad sentiment in Iran, and the potential for monumental political upheaval just as substantial.

There is no space in this forum to detail all the ways in which the unelected political elite of the Arab World’s biggest country consistently rejects democratic freedoms, subverts the rule of law to protect its hegemony, and encroaches on the human rights of its citizens day in, day out – although a brief perusal of this week’s country report on Egypt by Human Rights Watch would provide a taste – the organisation has helpfully pointed out that despite the media frenzy over the number of post-election arbitrary detentions in Iran, Egypt’s estimated tally of detentions without charge is 150% higher.

Still think crowd-sourced, Twitter-ified, FB-grouped news have no political agenda nor editorial pushes behind them?  Then why didn’t we hear about any of these?

[T]ake a look at the spine-tingling photos and videos of demonstrations against Mubarak in Mahalla back in April 2008, including the iconic image of hundreds of angry Egyptians bearing down with their feet on a flattened poster of the president. … And yet they have barely been seen outside Egypt, in common with the face of Mohamed ElBaradei — a Nobel Laureate who is spearheading the opposition movement against Mubarak, yet whose unexpected leadership challenge has also been largely ignored in the west.

It’s thus hardly surprising, but sobering to acknowledge that we see the world through some pretty distorted glasses, heavily filtered by our choice of media hose – or whichever one’s been thrusted to us.

Western media outlets apply vastly different editorial judgements on these two countries, and as a result readers at home are consuming a heavily skewed diet of Middle Eastern news. The issue is not, as some have suggested, over why Egyptians remain so placid in the face of oppression from their political masters – they don’t. The question is why nobody cares.

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