Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Through an Orange-Colored Lens: Western Media, Constructed Imagery, and Color Revolutions

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Through an Orange-Colored Lens: Western Media, Constructed Imagery, and Color Revolutions

Article excerpt

"Watch out . . . he's a foreign journalist."

-From Tintin in the Land of Soviets1


In June 2005, Ian Traynor, a foreign correspondent of the Manchester-based newspaper The Guardian, wrote a story claiming that "from the Chinese frontier to the borders of the European Union, the vast post-Soviet space has been in the grip of revolutionary fervour over the past few years-a second wave of democratization after the 1989-91 revolutions symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall."2 He was referring to the "bloodless,"3 "peaceful,"4 "electoral,"5 "democratic,"6 or "color revolutions"7 that occurred in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. Those popular upheavals were based on the October 2000 Serbian election, when democratic protests toppled Slobodan Miloevic's authoritarian regime.8

After Serbia, the democratic upheavals in the former Soviet Union shared the common feature of being centered on fraudulent elections with an opposition supported by key circles in the West. As a result, protests varying in size broke out in all three post-Soviet countries. Following a period of uncertainty, the incumbent president either resigned from office and/or the election outcome was overturned, resulting in a member of the opposition becoming president.9 All these situations ended without bloodshed (although looting was visible in Kyrgyzstan), the challengers embraced nonviolent tactics, and the incumbents did not call on state-security forces to repress the protests. Not even the opposition leaders predicted the scale and duration of the street protests.10 As in the 1989-91 period when, like falling dominos, socialist governments fell to the forces of democratization, Western journalists ran to the East to offer their perceptions to the West.

The media not only watched, they also played a crucial role11 in the years after the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, as rapid developments dramatically changed the status quo. Images of influential figures in the "eastern bloc"-Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Wal.esa, and Václav Havel-facing leaders from the "West"-Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II-were mingled with those of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Bucharest crowds that violently deposed Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu.12 In Moscow, an attempted coup by Soviet hard-liners failed in large part because the media was telling everyone around the globe what was happening with Gorbachev in Foros, while Yeltsin and putschists addressed a crowd from the top of a tank.13

The perception of the world aligned along East-West lines was, arguably, simpler to understand-at least as defined by the Western press. Today, readers and viewers can know almost as much as they want about distant, formerly inaccessible places such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. However, the window on the world is now wider, but it can be disorderly and confusing to look through it. The dimension of these changes carries implications not only for journalists and news organizations everywhere, but also for the governments and the citizens they portray. Some critics argue that today there is a muddled approach to international news in the West that is especially unfortunate because it ignores the news media's responsibility to provide the public with important information.14 The loss of the "grand-narrative" of the Cold War is highly responsible for this.15 If the public is uninterested in foreign news, it is a challenge to foreign correspondents to make their coverage more relevant and interesting. Correspondents have since developed codes and norms that guide not only their behaviors, but also their editors' behaviors, which therefore shape the content of news stories.16 In moments of crisis such as these revolutions, the dimensions of the various roles played by the media (monitoring the surroundings, creation of collective imagination, and so on) take on its full meaning. In time of crisis, hence, the media acquire a previously unknown autonomy. …

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