[Update: I wrote the following post before the stand off between armed forces and protesters today. Armed forces used tear gas and fired in the air to disperse crowd that wanted to take over ministry buildings.
The account by the media of today's events will obviously be quite telling of the coverage of the crisis]
The coverage of the current political conflict in Madagascar is intriguing in many ways because the perception of the conflict is quite different depending on the viewers' locations or affinities.
First, let me state that I am currently not in Madagascar. I try to follow as closely as I can the conflict by reading the reactions made available online.
Accusations of bias has been expressed many times by either camp and since they both owned their own media outlets for a while, I think bias is certainly expected.
It has reached the point where many people in Madagascar are tuning out news outlet because they recognize them as an instrument of propaganda.
The battle has of course reached the press and the interwebs. Financial backing by political parties of a few newspapers provoked suspicions of non-neutrality.
Citizen media filled a partial void there by documenting the events themselves with their own point of view ( biased or not).
So there is a definite fatigue among Malagasy people from the constant barrage of political messages masquerading as news, a strong desire to stay away from political events.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are many people outside of Madagascar (esp. in the US) who are still not aware that there is unrest over there . It is understandable because TV coverage has been quasi-nonexistent here so far. The international online press has done a better job lately than in the early part of the conflict.
In France, the narrative is a bit more complex because of the special ties between France and Madagascar dating from the colonial period.
Tension between the Ravalomanana administration and France are not a secret. There is currently no permanent French ambassador assigned to Madagascar after clashes between former Ambassador and Marc Ravalomanana.
Supporters of Ravalomanana also organized a protest on Saturday (in parallel to the meeting for peace ones) to protest an alleged bias in the coverage of the crisis from French media ( a bit more on this later)
So let's try to have a clearer picture on how the Madagascar crisis is being covered and what we can learn from it:
I am evidently not a media expert, I only have a strong interest in the coverage of Malagasy content. Fell free to correct me or suggest a better way to analyze the media coverage.
For this purpose, I will be using two tools: wordle.net for word cloud analysis and google news to analyze the news online content.
I will mostly skip the non-text materials because it is 1) again mostly non-existent here and 2) I am not sure how to do that properly.
If one wants to determine whether a website is biased, one need to determine how to detect bias.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) there is no shortage of website who clearly support one or the other protagonist. A definite platform to express a 3rd opinion or a call for unity is yet to materialize.
Let's start with how to spot a biased website aka known as positive controls in biological terms:
1) What words would a pro-Ravalomanana website mostly use ?
( all images generated by wordle.net)
A few words jumps at the reader instantly: Tiko, Eveques, President, TGV, Merci/Thanks
1) Tiko is the president' own business venture, so no surprise there.
2) Eveques translates to archbishops; the church is currently mediating negotiation between the two sides and religion is displayed front and center in both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina's agendas
3) President, TGV and Merci/Thanks: the emphasis of legitimacy is expected here. Ravalomanana is the elected president. TGV is interesting because calling the opponent by a nickname that suggests haste would lessen his credentials. I.e, they protray him as an immature young man. Merci/Thanks suggest that Ravalomanana would like other to believe that he is still getting a lot of support from the people and outside. He may or may not but he sure is grateful. (Thanks is one of the only word present in English).
2) A Pro-Rajoelina website:
Words that jump out: Place, Foule, Rajoelina, Daewoo, Patrie, Sang
Clearly, the emphasis here is on the fact that a popular movement has taken the street to showcase their patriotism. Place is the meeting place where la Foule (crowd) would demand what would be best for Madagascar. The fact Sang ( blood) is also repeated often denotes that Rajoelina blames the massacre of Red Saturday on Ravalomanana. A notable missing word there is Ravalomanana. This website won't acknowledge the man blamed for most of Madagascar's woes.
3) How about an alleged neutral website ?
Words: President, Rajoelina, Dialogue, Calme, Pro-TGV.
It sure seems more balanced that the previous two. Yet, the presence of Pro-TGV instead of pro-Rajoelina may suggest that this website would emphasize the importance of a back to normal life and might place most of the blame on the former mayor.
Who financially backs the websites obviously will drive the content of their coverage.
Why Twitter in the Malagasy context:
This is where citizen media reporting especially with micro-blogging (twitter) has a clear advantage over the large websites. No need for costly maintenance of websites.
The one advantage of twitter in the western world and India is the possibility to send message via text messages. That possibility has been negated when Twitter removed the option to carry SMS messaging in the rest of the world as explained by White African.
This is why initiatives like Ushahidi are critical for crisis reporting in ssAfrica and that we are testing it in Madagascar.
However there are other major advantages besides text messages to twitter that Malagasy twitterers have used efficiently:
1) All tweets initially get equal exposure, unlike comments on websites. Emphasizing good information with retweet or disavowing bad ones can be done instantly. Information and filter is crowd sourced to a certain degree ( limited to those online unfortunately)
2) The fact that one is limited to 140 characters favors the reporting of facts over opinions. It is evidently not always the case but it is an additional filter.
3) "Searchable" topics with hashtags. The "#Madagascar" hasthag was quickly picked up by all as the tag to use with tweets related to the crisis.
4) Possibility to reach a large audience instantly.
5) Limited bandwith. Although no one is immune to fail whale, the fact that tweets can be posted quickly helps a lot in a bandwidth limited regions.
Of main stream media outside Madagascar
As mentioned earlier, there is limited TV broadcast except for shorts clips on French TV news. Still, persistent rumors of media bias led to protest in front of the Maison de La Radio building in Paris. International Francophone TV channel TV5 even issued an apology for not providing as much footage from the Ravalomanana camp as the Rajoelina camp because they were not given same access. Why Ravalomanana would not provide sufficient access to TV5 is a bit puzzling but might be a product of his apprehension for french-speaking media.
Now is there real bias in the international coverage ?
The coverage as aggregated by google.com (news):
12,155 news items on Madagascar
8,256 news items on Rajoelina
7,990 news items on Ravalomanana
367 news items on Madagascar 2.
and it is roughly the same number of items on news aggregated by google.fr.
we established earlier the type of words that one camp would use. Now we can search for the same words ans see in what news channel they would appear more often:
A pro-Rajoelina Rethoric would use 3 words frequently: " Rajoelina + daewoo + blood"
Google.com news items for: "Rajoelina + daewoo + blood" = 1
Google.fr news items for: "Rajoelina + daewoo + blood" = 12
let's revisit favorites words used by pro-Ravalomanana: "president + tiko + calme"
google.com (news) : "president + tiko + calme"= 27 news items
google.fr (news): "president + tiko + calme" =25 news items
Statistical study on news about Madagascar were also slightly skewed by the release of Madagascar 2 on DVD the day before Red Saturday so here is a word cloud of google news articles that contains "Ravalomanana + Rajoelina":
words that stand out: Protesters, Forces, Saturday, Killing, Cyclone.
In Google.fr for the same words:
Words that stand out: President, Maire, face-a-face, manifestations, Forces.
How do word clouds of the French online press articles on the causes of the Madagascar crisis look like ?
No RSS feed available from any of the main MS media so here is the world cloud from an article entitled: "testimonies: neither for Ravalomanana nor Rajoelina"
The words that stand out: President, Sang, Capitale (blood, president, Capital City).
In L'express, an analysis/editorial goes over the cause of the crisis:
Words: TGV, rouge, Bulldozer, Ratsiraka, ressemblent, Daewoo: (TGV, red as in red saturday, Ratsiraka)
Let's compare that with a similar causal analysis from from IRIN news (english):
Words: Antananarivo, people, economic, president, crisis.
If there is unbalanced reporting in the foreign press, it is certainly hard to pinpoint with absolute certainty. But one would suggest that the emphasis on the economy is stronger in anglophone press whereas the francophone press is more political.
There is a small difference in the phraseology of the Madagascar crisis between English speaking and French-speaking news online. However, it is unclear whether that is due to the french-speaking crowd being more familiar with the issues or just an unbalanced coverage of the crisis.
Given that most Malagasy articles are written in French, more polarized content will be found in French as well.
I don't think the blame for unbalanced coverage were warranted but given the history of the two nations, it is a trend worth keeping an eye on.
Tomavana wrote an extensive piece on this issue (fr).