Apr 12 2012

Bread, Circuses and News

Guardian Media reports today that human rights activists in Bahrain are calling on the BBC and Sky to boycott the Formula 1 race planned to take place in the country on 22 April.


Zainab al-Khawaja, daughter of hunger striking imprisoned activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, told the Guardian “If the Formula One does come to Bahrain, despite calls from the Bahraini people and activists for it to be cancelled, then we would like to see that there are people supporting our cause, and who would not broadcast this race.”


She explained: “Bringing Formula One, putting all these ads everywhere, celebration, celebration, celebration, while people are suffocating in their villages from teargas, while a marcher dies just two weeks ago and while my father is dying in a military hospital is just sending the message to the people of Bahrain that nothing has changed.”


The BBC said they were abiding by their contractual commitments but were keeping in touch with *** and “monitoring the situation closely”. Sky have not commented.


The way in which questionable regimes use sporting events to achieve international legitimacy has been a subject of scrutiny since ancient times. Roman satirist Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses” (aka “bread and games”) in the second century AD to describe gladiator fights and similar entertainment events designed to distract public attention from political corruption and difficulties at the battlefields.


The phrase was adopted by dissidents throughout history to complain over shallow distractions of public opinion by the governing elites. It was used by Russian revolutionaries (“bread and spectacles”) and Spanish republicans (“bread and bullfights”).


Almost a century before Bahrain’s Royals came up with their version of “pita bread and fast cars” the world had the first live-broadcasted Olympic Games, those of Berlin 1936, supervised closely by Führer Adolf Hitler. The games were a huge propaganda platform for Nazi Germany, but Hitler’s hope that they would establish the superiority of “Aryan” athletes was thrown to the gutter by black US athlete Jesse Owens.


The photos and footage of  Owens breaking his records and of Hitler refusing to shake his hands were so effective that they are still engraved in the minds of people who were born decades after the 1936 Olympics has taken place. They remained in collective memory as moments in which a truth was exposed; Just as Nazi director Leni Riefensthal’s film Olimpya, selectively documenting the same events, is remembered as an icon of deceitful propaganda.


Being in Nazi ruled Berlin for the Olympics enabled journalists to expose some of the early atrocities of the Nazi regime and bring them to public awareness not just by the very merit of being in Germany, but also because the world was tuned to the country because of the Olympics, and wanted to know more about it.


In Argentina people argue to this very day over the crucial question – did the fact that the country hosted, and won, the football World Cup of 1978 prolong Jorge Vidale’s dictatorship, or prompt its timely demise. It certainly seems to have deepened the complacency of some Argentineans and deepened their wish to remain oblivious to the atrocities of the ruling junta.


The Olympic Games in China drew a certain interest towards human right protestors and atrocious human rights’ violations in the country, but at the end of the day China had much more to gain from the intense media coverage of the games than it had to lose. Its status as a major mega-player in world markets and politics was almost officially launched at the opening ceremony, in front of millions of wide eyed viewers worldwide.


There’s no doubt that covering a popular sporting event could make a broadcaster an accomplice, to an extent, in helping a regime redeem itself. But an enhanced media presence and a lime light directed at it also gives a priceless political opportunity to the opposition of such a regime, both at home and abroad. Their determination and courage could help them hijack the international attention and harness it to their cause.


At the end of the day it is all down to the broadcaster/newspaper, the editor and the individual reporter. Journalists who ignore the context in which the race is taking place would be betraying their profession. Covering the race without mentioning the protest is unthinkable. But avoiding coverage altogether is not the answer. Projecting more light, rather than pulling a plug and shrouding a situation in darkness, is what journalism is all about.



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