Blind spot on the Cameroon

Most contemporary media criticism comes down to some variant on ‘your story doesn’t jibe with my belief system.’ There are elaborate and even lovely variations on this theme, but it deliberately shuns that journalists strive to capture the truth. Note the small ‘t’ on truth. We have our blind spots. We make mistakes, but the motivation is not, with some exceptions, to jam a belief system down the audience’s throat.

Or so I think.

We had a great speaker at Lippmann House recently (these things are all off the record so I won’t say whom) who cracked about the role of techno-determinism in the press coverage of the revolution in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. “You can just see the New York Times looking for the white person behind the revolutions” was more or less his comment. I’m putting more of my time into “Paradise Lost” than the daily news, but I had to laugh, because writing about techno-determinism is more or less what I do for a living, and there is a lot of it in the media.

Then we Niemans were challenged with what seemed a difficult question: why aren’t the Western media covering the protests in Gabon and Cameroon?  In these countries protests receive almost no attention in the Western media, our speaker claimed. These ripple revolts are suppressed, and should not be.

I happen to know some people from the Cameroon who would be likely to tell me about things back home, and I was mystified that I knew nothing of what was happening there. it was absolutely true that there was nothing on Cameroon’s revolution in the press — Google News turned up one reference to the organization of a protest, and no follow-up.

I made some phone calls. The most politically connected of my Cameroonian friends said there was a protest in its largest city, Douala, on February 24th, and that the military crushed it and beat some people and jailed them, including a candidate in the presidential elections slated for this fall.

My friend noted that the Francophone president of Cameroon has been there for nearly 30 years, and it was interesting that the protest took place in Douala, because it’s a Francophone city, so in addition to disaffected and oppressed members of the Anglophone minority, many of the protestors must have been French speakers. That intrigued me, and I started poking around on these demonstrations.

I found only this: Cameroon: The will for change

Two pieces of video were included: the brutal beatdown of a single demonstrator by police, and a longer clip of what might be the whole event (see below).

My friend felt that many people in Cameroon want to see a new president — Paul Bila has been in the job for 28 years, after all. But there is apathy because of his perceived control of the country’s institutions and military.

You look at the video above. Tell me if you think this was more than a very small protest, quickly brushed aside.  It was small enough that were I an editor, a demonstration that small and that quickly dispersed would not incline me to dedicate resources to cover it. It looks suspiciously like a publicity stunt for a politician. That politician, Kah Walla, claims she was beaten, though that does not appear on camera.

I don’t doubt there is real desire for change in Cameroon, but it was not evident in what I saw here. The same event in a U.S. city would be unlikely to draw more than local coverage, if that, and it would probably focus on the man being beaten. Would the attention of the press spark a surge of protesters in the Cameroon? Maybe, if you believe the news media affects people like it does in Tom Wolfe’s famously cynical protest scene in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” I thought, perhaps naively, that was an almost unbelievable scene even in a work of fiction. Maybe on a slow news day.

Have I hit my blind spot? Was our speaker talking against my own belief system? Or am I right, that it’s hard to give serious coverage to a couple of dozen people disrupting traffic, however courageously, when you’re comparing it to tens and hundreds of thousands of people turning out elsewhere? Look at the video below and tell me what you think.

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