Press Turns Back on Protesters in Prague
I knew there was a problem when my mother called my hotel in Prague to see if I was all right. She had been watching the news and was under the impression that if I was at the protests against the World Bank, I was either in hospital or in jail. I told her things got pretty tense for a few minutes but that, on the whole, the protests had been peaceful. "Don't believe everything you see on television, Mom."
Only it's hard not to. All week I've been pouring over dozens of television and newspaper reports and all I've seen are molotov cocktails and flying paving stones. Over and over again, the activists are gleefully dismissed as being "anti-trade" Luddites. This particular caricature was drawn most crudely by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who plagiarized his own writing post-Seattle, calling the Prague protesters "a rogues' gallery of Communists, anarchists, protectionist unions and overfed yuppies" determined to "keep poor people poor." If the protesters have ideas of their own about how best to alleviate poverty, we certainly didn't hear about them.
On the streets, the relationship between the press and the protesters has become one of open hostility. The resentment has been building for months, but it was particularly close to the surface in Prague, which brought up nostalgic memories for journalists who were around for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square student uprising.
During those mass demonstrations, Western reporters were welcomed by protesters as both allies and witnesses. A lot of journalists believe, with reason, that their presence at these key moments in history helped to bring down repressive regimes. They were part of a revolution.
They got a very different welcome from the activists in Prague, as they have at similar demonstrations worldwide. In a movement with the stated goal of reigning in the power of multinational corporations, journalists working for CNN and CBS don't get their egos stroked with cries of "The whole world is watching." In fact, they might just get their egos slapped around a bit with taunts of "Go home corporate stooge!" They may even be treated to a lecture from a 23 year old anthropology graduate from Devon, England, about how today's protesters don't need the corporate press anyway -- they have Indymedia.org, a network of independent media-makers with chapters in dozens of cities.
Sure, this behaviour isn't terrifically diplomatic but as anti-corporate sentiment grows, and as news agencies like this one join ever-expanding corporate conglomerates, journalists will increasingly be regarded by activists as part of the problem, not the solution.
Tensions are further fuelled by the fact that the new breed of protest is notoriously difficult to cover. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Daniel Johnson got all misty eyed last week about his days covering Prague's Velvet Revolution. "At the Magic Lantern theater, [Vaclav] Havel gave daily press conferences as the spokesman of the revolution." Not any more. The protesters in Prague had not one spokesperson -- favouring a structure of "no followers, only leaders." Instead of the Magic Lantern theater, there was the anarchic Convergence Center, where journalists were unceremoniously tossed out of meetings for taking photographs without permission. And while there were a couple of press conferences, they mostly spread confusion since the "autonomous affinity groups" on the streets did whatever they wanted anyway.
Clearly, if journalists are going to accurately report on the political movement that has captured the imagination of a generation of young idealists, we are all going to have to actually go out and get the story ourselves, swallowing our pride along the way.
Only don't hold your breath. The night I arrived in Prague, I found myself in a bar where one of the key organizers of the demo was having a drink. As it happened, a table of journalists was also there, with reporters from The Economist, the International Herald Tribune and the Daily Telegraph. When they were introduced to the organizer, they looked up briefly, then went back to their conversation. They didn't have a single question for the protest organizer.
Two days later, when the streets of Prague were exploding with activity, the reporter from CNN seemed unable to descend from the top of his van. He was telling his viewers around the world that thousands of activists were in Prague to discuss "important issues" but "sadly" those issues were overshadowed by violence.
Surely he could have wiped away those tears, climbed down from the van, and covered some of those important issues. Only, sadly, he chose not to.