“Is there a difference between democracies and illiberal states, regarding how media presents protests and riots?”

      The capitalist state is often portrayed as the bastion of freedom and equality; but also as the arena where these virtues can be expressed indiscriminately. This essay aims to prove this idea wrong and emphasize that we are indeed victims of the most devious, imperceptible and efficient kind of propaganda. In order to do this, this essay will therefore focus on how media reacts to mass protests meant to promote changes, in illiberal and liberal states. The first section will introduce and discuss domestic media coverage of the protests of Tiananmen Square (China ‘89) and Tlatelolco (Mexico ‘68). After having highlighted that government-controlled media tend to occult protests or to label protestors as violent rioters, the second part of the essay will focus on media coverage of two contemporary movements of the western world: Occupy Wall Street (USA) and the Indignados (Spain/EU). In particular, the evidence will demonstrate that western media discourages changes through demonization, de-legitimization and/or political isolation of social movements. In conclusion, the third section will emphasize that both government-controlled media and free-media, tend inexorably to support the perpetuation of the existing order; and therefore the difference between how media presents protests in Democratic and Non-democratic states is only methodological.

Mexico City, second of October 1968. The beginning of the Olympics game was considered by thousands of students the opportunity to protest against the government of Diàz Ordaz. This was the beginning of the event that went down in history as the Tlatelolco massacre. Similarly, on the 15th of April 1989, broke out the protests of Tiananmen Square demanding less corruption and reforms in communist China, which later resulted in the Incident of the fourth of June. Despite the chronological, geographical and ideological differences between these two events, it is helpful to emphasize their common characteristics. First, in both the cases protestors were mainly unarmed student (K. Lucero, 2011. Pp.4; K. Borden, 2005. Pp1). Second, in both Mexico and China government-controlled media presented the protesters as armed rebels to justify military intervention (K. Lucero, 2011. Pp.41; K. Borden, 2005. Pp.2). Finally, even nowadays it is impossible the state the precise number of victims of the protests (A. Chang, 2005. Pp.9; K. Borden, 2005. Pp.2), arguably in virtue of the lack of impartial media coverage. These examples seem to suggest the idea that media coverage of mass protests in non-democracies –or at least in Mexico and China- was aimed at justifying the government at eyes of the public and impeding the heroicizetion of the movements through occultation. An idea confirmed, for instance, by recent claims of explicit harassment of western journalist by the Chinese government over the anniversary of the massacre (R. Greenslade, 2015).

This might not be surprising for the citizens of the liberal world. Indeed, we tend to consider propaganda as characteristic of illiberal forms of government. Hence, empirical evidence reflect the idea expressed by Rod Hague and Martin Harrop that the media, alongside the military, is a “key control device” (2013, pp.60) for non-democracies. On the other hand, much ink has been spilled in the last hundred years to discuss whether the media does, or does not influence public opinion within democracies. In regards to this, it is interesting to take into consideration Jay Mathews’ article titled “the Myth of Tiananmen” (2010). As a matter of fact, Mathews pointed out that if it’s true that Chinese media underreported the incidents of the Beijing protests, it is also evident that imprecision characterised the western media coverage of the facts of Tiananmen. Arguably, one does not need to be a conspirator to understand why this American media’s imprecision often led to a strong unrealistic exaggeration of the number of fatalities in China. Also, capitalist Media exercises propaganda on public opinion. The following sections will demonstrate when and how, in regards to mass protests.

In the last years, two movements strongly challenged the status-quo of modern western democracies. The indignados movement rose in Spain in 2011. Without any affiliation with political party, the movement was a direct consequence of recession and unemployment, at 21% overall in the country (Zachary Arestad, 2013). The movement organized a series of protests also against austerity measures, economic inequality and corruption. In view of this and considered the socio-economic condition of Europe during the financial crisis, similar movements raised in many other EU member-states. Likewise, the experience of the indignados inspired, according to many, the foundation of Occupy Wall Street in the US. (Arianna Huffington, 2011) Occupy Wall Street began the 17th of September 2011 “and spread to over 100 cities in the US and actions in over 1500 cities globally” (Occupy Wall Street, n.d.). Europeans and Americans took the streets contemporary to bailout the power and the luxuries of the elites. Despite the expectations however, as Tomas Watson (2012) noticed “Occupy is not winning the war […] it’s fair to observe that nothing has really changed in terms of the middle class, the under-represented, the ’99 percent’ “. A very convincing explanation of why OWS produced only modest changes, is the ‘protest paradigm’, defined by Francis L.F. Lee as: “a pattern of [media] coverage that focuses on the violent and disruptive aspects of the protest actions […] highlights the protesters’ (strange) appearance and/or ignorance, portrays protests as ineffective, focuses on the theatrical aspects of the protests and neglects the substantive issues, invokes public opinion against the protesters…” (2014, pp.2727). This kind of strategy indeed, can be considered the primarily instrument through which American mainstream media reduced prospects of systematic changes. In regards to this, it is interesting to notice that in his “Framing Occupy Wall Street”, Xu analyzed 132 articles from the New York Times and USA Today and found out that the majority of articles (51.5 %) used a negative rhetoric negative towards protestors, while 64 articles were neutral or positive (2013, Pp2421). In particular, in the case of OWS, protestors were usually labelled as unpatriotic and violent by mainstream media, that thus relied on emotions and national feelings to uproot the movement from its popular background.

On the other hand, it is important to emphasize that while radical protests tend to be demonized by mainstream media in western countries, peaceful protests are often ignored because they are not considered newsworthy. In other words, “protest groups often find themselves in a double-bind: be ignored by the media, or resort to drama and risk that these events might be used to delegitimize the group.” (Douglas M. McLeod, 2007. Pp.186). One of the very few movements that escaped this paradox, was that of the Indignados. In view of the strong apolitical background of the movement and its strong presence on social networks, most of the protests in Spain and all around Europe were considered newsworthy events, often characterized by favorable media coverage (M. Kyriakidou & Jose J. Olivas, 2014). Nonetheless even in this case, the movement managed to produce only relatively modest changes. As a matter of fact, as M. Kyriakidou and Jose J. Olivas pointed out, “the press hardly managed to place the movement in direct dialogue with mainstream political processes and decision-making” (2014), thus de-naturalizing the fundamental idea of a protest as an instrument to promote changes. To sum up, if a protest is violent or involves radical tactics, the media will appeal to the ‘protest paradigm’. On the other hand, if a protest is peaceful –and if it makes it to the first lines of newspapers- the media will de facto alienate the protesters from the political channels, trapping the movement in a purely sociological dimension.

In his Quaderni dal Carcere  Antonio Gramsci emphasized the possibility that “man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideals” (Thomas Bates, 1975. Pp351). Gramsci stated that the dominant class projects its own values on those who are subordinated, in order to favor acceptance of the capitalist system as logic and natural. First, In regards to peaceful mass protests, this explains why opinions that are “anti-capitalist, anti-nationalistic or anti-government are far less likely to make it into print or be covered by television than those that support capitalism, nationalism and our present governments” (John Smith, 2003). Second, Gramsci’s idea of hegemonic ideal justifies the demonization and de-legitimization that characterizes mass media coverage of protests (i.e. the protest paradigm). Finally, even when media coverage of protests seems positive, the political quarantine in which the Indignados movement has been trapped demonstrates that mainstream media disconnects protests from possibilities of changes; thus, whether explicitly or implicitly, media perpetuates the idea that the capitalist state is an indivisible and perfect unit. In illiberal democracies therefore, uprisings are suppressed with violence and particular strategies of occultation. In the western world on the other hand, the capitalist elite uses the media to control the effects of protests without getting its hands dirty, to impede the proliferation of destabilizing feelings. Quoting Marshall McLuhan: “I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy is quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them” (1964. Pp.6)

To summarize, media coverage of mass protests, whether in liberal states or non-democratic regimes, manifests a tendency to preserve the established order. In illiberal states, this is possible thanks to evident and relatively simple strategies of control. On the other hand, Gramsci correctly identified the existence of an “hegemonic ideology” projected through the media in western societies: the key control device of capitalism. This necessarily means that even if there is a difference between democracies and illiberal states, regarding how media interacts with mass protests, both free-media in democracies and government-controlled media in illiberal states are de facto stabilizing instruments.


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