It’s too easy—and misguided—for journalists to oversimplify the massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a straightforward pro-democracy movement, Associate Journalism Department Chair Doug Struck told students packed in the Semel Theater on February 8.
Struck, a former Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun newspapers, assembled panelists with deep knowledge of the region to paint a nuanced picture of the unfolding events that began with the overthrow of the Tunisian government last month. Speakers included graduate Journalism students Nadia Zaffar of Pakistan and Ezgi Akin of Turkey, and British-Greek photojournalist Iason Athanasiadis, who had just returned from reporting on the conflict.
Many countries in the region are rattled by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, with leaders wondering if the same could happen to them, Struck said. “There are no easy answers,” added Athanasiadis.
“These are the kind of events for which it is essential for journalists to tell the world what is going on.”
Zaffar said her fellow Pakistanis share many of the same woes as Egyptians, including high unemployment, inflation, and the lingering effects of devastating floods in 2010, but its government is a popularly elected parliament and therefore more stable than the military dictator-style presidency of Egypt.
“The word on the street in Pakistan was of inspiration; they understand the pain of the Egyptian people,” she said. “Officials are uneasy … [but] Pakistan is unlikely to follow Egypt.”
Turkey is similarly stable, said Akin, noting that the Egyptian uprising has actually elevated Turkey’s status in the region to that of a model government that Egypt may attempt to emulate. Because Turkey seeks entry into the European Union, it is obliged to continue a process of democratic reforms that will further distance it from factional fighting, she said.
The graduate students’ global overview of the region contrasted with Athanasiadis’s gritty account of Tahrir Square events and recent photos of people being beaten and stoned in the streets of Cairo.
“The Western media has been seduced by the narrative that this is a great pro-democracy wave washing through the world,” Athanasiadis said. “There has been an unrelenting focus on the square, but is it a real revolution or a media construct?”
He talked about being threatened by pro-government supporters who didn’t like international journalists descending on that small section of the city to broadcast news of the unrest, creating the impression for the world that the entire country was in turmoil. Yet some of the anti-government protesters shielded Athanasiadis from flying rocks when they realized he was reporting on the situation.
At one point during his presentation, Athanasiadis paused as a photo of a man holding his pay stub was projected on a screen behind him. “This is what it is,” he said, describing the man’s total income as about $250 per month. “You can’t live on that.”
“These are the kind of events for which it is essential for journalists to tell the world what is going on,” Struck said.