Our Interests Determine the Stories We Tell
By Rabih Hasbany
Recently, mass protests have demanded the departure of long-ruling presidents in Algeria and Sudan. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Algiers for more than a month, complaining of corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement which they say has tarnished President Bouteflika’s 20-year rule. Sudanese protests broke out on 19 December 2018 in some cities in Sudan, due to spiraling costs of living and the deterioration of economic conditions. The protests quickly turned from demands for urgent economic reforms into demands for Omar al-Bashir to step down.
In the past two years, major protests have also hit Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco. The conditions are in place for the reemergence of an “Arab uprising.” Many activists online have again attempted to create one. However, key pan-Arab satellite television stations have largely avoided doing the same.
Chief pan-Arab stations are not completely ignoring Algeria and Sudan. News broadcasts and talk shows are addressing the main developments. But these stations have, noticeably, chosen not to fully mobilize their audience as they did in 2011, when they turned the protests into a regional story. Today, rather than linking the protests into a single Arab story, the coverage largely presents them as isolated national events.
The relatively weak pan-Arab media support for these uprisings has been noted by many activists and observers. To test that observation, Marc Lynch, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, used a tool developed by Deen Freelon to grab the last 3,200 tweets on the main Twitter feed of the two leading satellite television stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Al-Jazeera is closely aligned with Qatari foreign policy; Al-Arabiya is the representative of the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates counterrevolutionary bloc. After conducting his study, Lynch concludes:
“Approximately 7 percent of Al-Jazeera’s tweets were about Algeria after the first protests took place on February 22; and 4 percent involved Sudan after the protests started there. Al-Arabiya has also tweeted about Algeria approximately 7 percent of the time since February 22, and Sudan about 3 percent. Even given the crowded news agenda, those percentages seem low relative to the significance and public interest in the protests.”
The coverage is obviously shaped by politics. Key pan-Arab stations cannot completely ignore significant political developments such as the Sudanese and Algerian protests. But they have little motivation in these two cases. The regional order is in the grip of powers who are seeking to prevent a new wave of public uprisings. Almost every regime in the Arab world today is badly worried about the outbreak of another regional uprising. They still have not forgotten that the earliest spark for the so-called Arab Spring came from distant, marginal Tunisia. They don’t want the same scenario to be repeated by Algeria or Sudan.
While Arab powers may be motivated to encourage uprisings against hostile regimes, Sudan and Algeria are both neutral states in the highly polarized regional stadium. Algeria, for example, did not take a side in the conflict between Qatar and the Saudi-Emirati bloc. Neither Qatar nor the Saudi-UAE bloc saw an advantage in alienating the Algerian military, or in pushing Algiers toward the other side of the regional divide. Each will be careful to ensure that the likely leadership change in Algeria will not tip the country into the other’s camp.
Theological Reflections and Missiological Implications
Media makes the news as it brings to the surface some events and keeps others at the bottom of our public consciousness. Because media channels are politicized, they choose to highlight news that serves the interests of their political benefactors. But we, as a church, are sometimes biased and selective too in our ministries. Our world is full of miseries, but we may only choose those that widen our spectrum of donors and beneficiaries. This brings to my mind the issue of Syrian refugees and the Lebanese church. Syrian refugees increased the number of attendees in our Sunday services and also increased the amount of funds for the support of various ministries. It is noticeable that many church buildings and facilities were built during this time of Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon. I, however, am ignoring neither the good intentions of Lebanese church leaders and ministers nor the fact that may non-Christian Syrians came to Christ through the works of mercy conducted by the Lebanese followers of Christ.
This situation calls us to a self-critical look through which we test our motivations, as Jesus did with the sons of Zebedee. In our ministries, we should be Christ-centered rather than self-centered and always seek the Glory of Christ. It is an invitation to evaluate our incentives of ministry and ask ourselves whether our choice of ministry focus is driven by our own interests or by the purpose of spreading God’s Kingdom on Earth. What factors help us discern with whom we will chose to empathize?
Moreover, we only revolt against injustice that we hear about in the media. But media is biased most of the time and does not always portray the various sides of a story in a nuanced way. In his IMES Blog post, Brent Hamoud, brings to us stories from East India, China and Myanmar of Muslims facing severe persecution. These stories we don’t hear about in Media because they are stories of numerical minorities that the ruling powers are not interested in. This teaches us to dig deeply so as to unveil stories of injustice in our communities. They may not be stories of heroes and may not make us famous advocates for human rights, but it is our responsibility as the body of Christ to seek justice for the oppressed and make Christ known.