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Perspectives

February 20, 2009
Relying on Twitter for news of Madagascar’s political crisis

Aftermath of protests in Madagascar. Photo: IRIN NEWS

Groups loyal to Madagascar opposition leader Andry Rajoelina briefly gained control of four government buildings on Thursday. About 50 people were arrested after security forces reportedly regained control.

Anti-government violence in Madagascar has killed more than 100 people as thousands of protesters voice their opposition to President Marc Ravalomanana and loot and burn buildings affiliated with the state. But news about the country’s political upheaval has been scarce.

Rajoelina called for Ravalomanana to step down and for demonstrations against the government, which shut down his radio station after it aired an interview with an exiled former leader.

Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a co-founder of Global Voices Online. He writes at the “My Heart’s in Accra” blog to discuss the scarcity of media coverage of Madagascar, writing that the most complete coverage is coming from social media users.

Watching Madagascar, via Twitter

The nature of breaking news is changing. Recent breaking stories, like the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, have been simulcast on mainstream news sites and via social media like blogs and twitter. To stay up to date, I’ve increasingly found myself triangulating between traditional and new media, sometimes frustrated by the speed of rumor spread in new media, sometimes moved by the personal, direct and eyewitness perspectives I’ve gotten from individuals directly affected by attacks.

The (confusing, apparent, partial, incomplete) coup in Madagascar is the first event I’ve been able to watch only through social media.

Madagascar has had a political crisis for several weeks. The may of the capital city, Antananarivo, and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina has been urging supporters to occupy government buildings, allowing his TGV party to take control of the government. Rajoelina argues that he’s taking control from a corrupt and dictatorial president, Marc Ravalomanana, who he accuses of manipulating the Malagasy economy to benefit his own businesses. President Ravalomanana views Rajoelina’s actions as a coup, and has fired him as mayor of Antananarivo and is struggling to maintain control.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been tense standoffs between protesters and government forces. One of these standoffs descended into burning and looting, killing dozens. Another involved the government firing on protesters as they marched towards the President’s residence. I’ve detailed some of the events on my blog, and Global Voices has very thorough coverage of the events.

Today, Rajoelina’s supporters have apparently seized four ministries – the police, interior, education and “territory” ministries. According to my friend Lova Rakatomalala, “Consensus so far is that seizing of ministry buildings does not give TGV the control of the government.”

It would be hard to get a sense for that consensus by reading English-language media. Google News doesn’t have any breaking news from Madagascar – my last search turned up a 13-hour old story about the opposition’s threats to occupy buildings (and dozens of stories about the Dreamworks film.) While the New York Times’s Barry Bearak is one of the few US reporters to have meaningfully addressed the Madagascar story, the Times site doesn’t even have a newswire story about the current situation. And while my French sucks, my sense is that there’s not a ton of coverage there – a short piece just went up on Le Monde based on an AFP story.

So I’m doing what my Malagasy friends across the net are doing – religiously watching the #Madagascar tag on Twitter. That means I’m primarily reading Thierry Ratsizehena, a marketing and social media expert in Antananarivo, who is listening closely to news via television and radio, and sharing what he knows with his Twitter readers. Lova, who’s in the U.S., is translating his tweets into English and adding context and commentary. The two make a pretty effective news bureau, helping interested readers understand the few facts we’ve got from the ground and the numerous unanswered questions.

What we know:
– Four ministries are occupied by the opposition TGV. The party’s leader, Rajoelina, has asked his supporters to continue occupying the buildings, and some supportive crowds are surrounding buildings and chanting.

What we think we know:
– The President hasn’t been heard from, but his Prime Minister is evidently calling members of parliament to ensure they have support.
– The armed forces held TGV forces outside their building for some time today, and eventually let some TGV figures inside to negotiate, perhaps to avoid violence.
– The events today appear to be largely nonviolent.

What we don’t know:
– Whether TGV will continue seizing ministries, or whether the President will try to use the armed forces to oust TGV and arrest Rajoelina
– How much public support there is either for the existing government or for TGV.

Confused? Yeah, so’s everyone watching this story. Which is why I wish we had more reporters on the ground and more analysis coming out.

The population of Madagascar is more than 20 million – roughly that of Australia. I realize this isn’t a helpful comparison, but I can’t help returning to the idea that there are roughly twice as many people in Madagascar than in Israel and Palestine, a part of the world where even minor political developments are followed around the world with passionate interest. I understand that the future of Madagascar probably won’t affect the future of US/Middle East relationships and that the Malagasy diaspora tends to be a lot quieter than supporters of Israel and Palestine… but it seems crazy that there’s apparently a single AFP stringer bringing this conflict to the world’s attention.

My work over the years suggests that you’re lots less likely to get media attention if you’re poor, far away, speak languages other than English and not involved with global terror or American military operations. Madagascar loses on all fronts. I’m proud that Global Voices is doing a good job of covering this story, but really wish we had a bit more company.

See the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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Comments

3 comments

#3

Protesters killed on 28 March

PRESS RELEASE FROM « THE ASSOCIATION OF MALAGASY PATRIOTS »
(« COLLECTIF DES TIA TANIN DRAZANA MALAGASY »)
collectifgtt@gmail.com

A huge demonstration at Ambohijatovo Park on 28th March 2009 : 8 killed and 30 odd seriously injured

So far, we have always believed that there was no scale of barbarity, but what has occurred today in Antananarivo proved us wrong. While more than 50 000 peaceful demonstrators gathered in the Ambohijatovo park (whic is not a no-go area), a recurring event since Andry Rajoelina seized power by force, mutinous soldiers obeying Rajoelina’s orders made no bones about using live munitions and shooting at the surrounded crowd who were only asking for the return of the constitutional order and for the respect for democracy. In fact, this autocratic power is showing day after day its true face reflecting the image of the would be president who can exert his authority only by using force.

At the moment we are writing these lines the death toll is appalling : 8 dead, two of them were Members of Parliament.
As members of the Association of Malagasy patriots we hold that those killings are a further proof of the nature of that power in keeping with Andry Rajoelina who used weapons and henchmen to carry out his coup.
We also call for France to stop using an ambiguous language for it is deeply involved in those misdeeds, as proof, French elements were seen by the crowd in the scuffles, pursuing, with some mutinous military collaborating with that power, the demonstrators.
Therefore, we strongly blame France in its involvement in these troubles in Madagascar and we urge the French media to show lucidity and fairness : oddly enough they were not present during today’s demonstration whereas they covered other troubles shaking Antananarivo re’cently or in the past..
We do make it a principle that, henceforward, we will give a specific wide airing to the events in Madagascar.
Given the seriousness of the events which have taken a heavy toll of human life,certainly the Malagasy people cannot put up with such provocations and those attacks on unarmed civilians will result in making the Malagasy people angrier, and theirs claims for the return of legality and for the respect for democracy more radical.
After wielding power for one week, the only achievement of the puppet government is to cause thousands and thousand of Malagasy to take the streets in Antananarivo, leading to today’s crisis. Unsurprisingly, the meeting, which has become a daily happening, is gathering more and more people ; since las Thursday school and university students, and civil servants have joined the peaceful and nonviolent movement.
In a context of general defiance, not to mention the non-recognition by most of the world’s Governments, except France, and by international Organisations of this regime guilty of a democratic hold-up, and with a general strike looming ahead as soon as next week, the only possible solution is the standing down of the would-be president Andry Rajoelina, and the return to power of a democratically elected president, Marc Ravalomanana. If France wants to do the Malagasy people a good turn, let her repatriate her peculiar protégé Andry Rajoelina, who is a French national.
In any case, we do take exception to the biased and unfair way in which the events in Madagascar have been dealt with, so far by the media. We are convinced that the French people do not realize what their leaders are up to in Africa. We believe that Mr Sarkozy’s recent visit to Niger and DRC are disguised way to make amends in the eyes of the French people and to ease his conscience about the terrorist acts being carried out in Madagascar.

#2

Hi there,

please check our netvibes page : http://www.netvibes.com/foko
for daily updates from bloggers in 4 locations in madagascar. citizen media and journalism are under threats during this crisis but the great work of the social activism always willing to relay are well noticed by many media today :
http://www.facebook.com/ext/share.php?sid=59191306866&h=yX4si&u=CvjGB

#1

You may wish to look at sobika.com. It covers the major events on a sometimes hourly basis. I’ve checked Foko, the Malagasy blog from time to time, but there are rarely any active postings. What happened? It seemed so promising. The people in Tana that I am in contact with are very annoyed by the entire political scene. It should be noted that the town has not been shut down. For many, life goes on pretty much as always, even as tragic death and destruction erupts.

I’d like to know how openly former president Ratsiraka is being talked about. How much do people acknowledge this? To what extent is it true? It seems very important and not even L’Express, one of the dailies in Tana that publishes online, says much about it. There was one article a couple days ago that shocked me because it DID say l’ancien regime was behind Rajoelina.
JoAnn Pavletich

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