More than a year after the start of public demonstrations that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, the “Arab Spring” has largely faded from the front pages and home pages of media outlets, the struggle for human rights and social justice persists in places like Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen. Similarly, nearly seven months after its initial demonstrations, the Occupy Wall Street movement has largely disappeared from the broader public discourse, despite the persistent actions of the movement both on the ground and online. While there is obviously a correlation between the intensity of media coverage and public knowledge and support of activist efforts, there is also a need to highlight those moments when activists do not receive the sort of media attention that raises the profile of their work or the abuses they suffer while engaging in activism.
Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese human rights activist with a long history of drawing international attention to abusive practices on behalf of the Chinese governmental, made international headlines in late April when he escaped house arrest and sought refuge at the US Embassy in Beijing for several days. Typically Guangcheng’s case would have passed with little if any media attention; however, the timing of Guangcheng’s stay in the US embassy overlapped with a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for high-level talks with Chinese officials. After several tense days of quiet negotiations between US and Chinese officials, Guangchen opted to leave the embassy to seek medical care at a Chinese hospital, only to seek protection by the United States shortly thereafter. Ultimately, Guangchen was offered the opportunity to travel to the United States to pursue academic studies, which Chinese officials at the time of the writing appear willing to grant.
Guangcheng’s case is unique among these profiles of activists because his case garnered the support of powerful political institutions and leaders in the United States. During his ordeal, Guangcheng was able to speak directly to senior US embassy staff, to participate in a conference call with members of Congress and to request a meeting with Secretary of State Clinton. The timing of Guangcheng ordeal to coincide with sensitive and high-level meetings between US and Chinese officials provided an opportunity for greater dissemination of his plight and his activism through the media. This is markedly different from the experiences of the following activists who were unable to capture the attention of mass media networks and access institutions and structures of power that could defend their activism.
Nabeel Rajab, a Bahraini human rights activist and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was arrested by Bahraini authorities upon his return to the country on May 5th. Initial charges against Rajab included participation in illegal assemblies and encouraging others to join illegal assemblies through social networking tools; however additional charges related to charges of “insulting the statutory bodies” may follow, according to a BCHR press release. Rajab, a leading and enduring figure within Bahraini human rights circles, rose to international prominence as an organizer, director and spokesperson for the protests and demonstrations that have been occurring in Bahrain since February 14, 2011.
Chut Wutty, a Cambodian environmental activist and director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, was shot and killed by military police on April 26th as he and a group of journalists documented illegal logging activities in the Koh Kong province of Cambodia. While the investigation into Wutty’s death is ongoing, initial reports indicate that Wutty was stopped by military authorities at the behest of a logging company in Koh Kong province and, after refusing to surrender the memory card of his camera, Wutty was shot by military police as he attempted to drive away from the scene.
Andreas Ayas, an Danish activist who participated in a solidarity bicycle ride through Israeli-occupied sections of the West Bank with international and Palestinian activists, was assaulted by Lt. Colonel Shalom Eisner, an officer in the Israeli military. As the Israeli troops attempted to halt the activists, Eisner struck Ayas in the face with his M-16 rifle; a blow that required Ayas to seek medical treatment and receive several stitches. Such confrontations between the Israeli military and activists in the West Bank is not extraordinary and too often occurs without much notice beyond the blogs and websites of activist organizations dedicate to documenting such practices. However, this instance was different in that dramatic video footage of Eisner striking an unsuspecting Ayas was posted to YouTube and quickly spread throughout activist communities and into traditional media outlets. Resultantly, Israeli military and government leaders largely condemned Eisner’s actions, promised action against the Lt. Colonel and then quietly reassigned him to a training center in the Negev where he was able to maintain his rank.
While there is obviously a correlation between the intensity of media coverage and public knowledge and support of activist efforts, there is also a need to highlight those moments when activists do not receive the sort of media attention that raises the profile of their work or the abuses they suffer while engaging in activism.