Posted by: Heather Forbes | December 16, 2010

Considering Media Democracy in 2010


VSPN member Victor Ngo attended Media Democracy Day last month – the following is his account of this excellent event.

As people concerned about the health of our public life, we are excited for the good work done each year by the Media Democracy team. As the year winds down and we reflect on the events of 2010 (The Olympics, the G20 in Toronto, etc) it is important to recognize where and when media has narrowed democratic discourse, and where it has fostered more meaningful public discussion. Victor attended a panel on “Global Protest and Media” that examined the relationship between global protests and media representation.

“Ever since the Seattle WTO demonstrations in 1999, global protests have become a part of the mainstream mediaís image bank. Whether covering the recent G20 protests in Toronto, or opposition to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the mainstream media have, for most of the past decade, painted citizen activism and engagement with the same brush. What are the shortcomings of mainstream media representations of protest and negotiation at global marquee events such as the G20 and the Olympics? How are alternative and independent media re-writing this story to make it more diverse?”

The panel was helmed by Stuart Poyntz, Assistant Professor at the SFU School of Communication and consisted of David Eby, Founder of PIVOT Legal Society and Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, Cathryn Atkinson, editor for, Issac K. Oommen, editor of the Vancouver Media Co-op and Irwin Oostinde, Executive Director of W2 Community Media Arts.

David Eby began with a sharp critique on the media representation during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. He argued that the government and media were complacent together in managing dissent and deliberately failed to capture the multitude of view points of the opposition. Instead, the spotlight was solely fixed on the criminal and violent elements. This was accomplished through three means. First, civil disobedience was tantamount to terrorist activity and fell under the category of criminal protest. Eby provided an apt example encapsulating his argument: a Province headline titled “Olympic security force of 16,500 prepares for ‘criminal protests’.” Second, there was a tendency in the media to take the most extreme statements as the most representative of the Olympic opposition. And third, the uncritical repetition of police statements of the ‘threat’ represented by protestors. Examples cited were of rocks concealed by paper mache and marbles being portrayed as violent weapons, when instead they were designed to make noise.

Eby singled out the unaccredited media centres, represented as “neutral media distribution outlets,” as the most effective way government manipulated media. The amount of resources allotted allowed the government to effectively control the agenda of news stories. “If journalists were curious about homelessness, they’d be told well there’s an official homeless information centre in the Downtown Eastside you can go to.”

He concluded with an amusing email back-and-forth exchange of a failed attempt to get a press release distributed with information on planned BCCLA media briefings the BCCLA. The conversation between Eby and the media centre was fraught with long delays and periods of no response.

Following Eby, Cathryn Atkinson took up the podium and spoke about the role Rabble played within alternative media and its G-20 Toronto summit coverage. Rabble covered the event extensively and was very active during the summit, Twittering about information as it happened. Atkinson pointed out the mainstream media had many of its journalists exit the area due to possible detainment or arrest and were thus unequipped to report the G-20 fully from the ground. One of Rabble’s reporters, Krystalline Kraus, was detained during the day of and was asked if Rabble was sending out messages to the protestors. The fact that the police asked this question signaled to Atkinson the general attitude toward dissenting media.

Atkinson made a call for critical analysis and conversations of protests. “There’s a huge need for people to have this dialogue because journalism is meant to be that,” she said.”The protests doesn’t end and begin on the street.”

Issac Oommen’s presentation centred on the Vancouver Media Co-op, its origins and methods of engagement in the city through workshops and skills training. He spoke about how the Media Co-op is “pretty much the most controversial media organization in Vancouver” and hope they will continue to be so by challenging the dominant perception of what is independent media.

Last up for the panel was Irwin Oostinde. Speaking about W2: Community Media Arts, the cultural hub in the DTES aims to provide a media infrastructure within Vancouver–distancing itself from an activist or mainstream media organization. As an independent community media organization, they espouses peer-based learning & training and bottom up stories emanating from the community. The most interesting piece Oostinde noted during his talk was Vancouver as a social media hub. A Ph.D. student in England tracked Twitter traffic from the W2 and True North Media House, a media collaboration campaign consisting of about four or five people during the Olympics. He noticed an interesting phenomenon where True North’s tweets only consisted of information going outwards, all emanating from one source, with no interaction whereas the W2 had a “polyflower” effect with multiple Tweeters with different distinct clusters communicating. It was a satisfying and rewarding experience for Oostinde as it was indicative that the W2 was reaching out to the community and capturing different voices.

Overall, the panel was very interesting with a good mix between featuring alternative and independent media organizations in Vancouver and critiques of mainstream media representations during the Olympics and G-20. More pertinently, the discussion pointed to the larger theme of the role public space plays in facilitating civic discussion and the free exchange of ideas. According to the panel, this did not happen during the Olympics and G-20 with the mainstream media completely failing to represent citizen activism and engagement accurately. Public space does not only support democracy, but forms the basis of the site of everyday democracy. A prime example being the respatialization of the site of everyday democracy towards the digital sphere with the extensive role Twitter played during the 2009-2010 Iranian election protests. With the changing media landscape and push towards digital spaces, it will be interesting to see what the future holds.


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