The 6 January will remain a day to remember in the roughly 250-year history of the United States. It may be considered the day when the wall of the American sense of superiority, as far as the best democratic exercises are concerned, fell.
Protesters, pushed by a president who rejected the results of elections and called them “fraudulent,” rushed to occupy the US Capitol in Washington, yelling and breaking windows in a shocking and stereotypically third-world scene. Far-right supporters of outgoing US president Donald Trump broke all established norms, at least when it comes to one long-held view of the American people, climbing over the walls of the Capitol and taking photographs of themselves seated in the chair of the speaker of the US House of Representatives, among other shocking scenes that world watched live on television.
No one will be able to forget the image of one member of the mob carrying a lectern home as he strolled through the rotunda area of the House. At some moments, and unless one was quite sure that one was tuned into a US TV channel, such scenes might have been mistaken for those coming out of a banana republic. As one Kenyan newspaper put it in a sarcastic headline, “Who is the banana republic now?”
For decades, the US government, people and media have done their best to brainwash the minds of millions of people across the globe that US democracy is the best ever and that the US is the sole protector of human rights and the staunch defender of civil liberties and freedoms. While the US is a country of law and order, the US form of democracy is not the holy scripture that successive US administrations have advocated it as being. It is a system that appeals to people living in the US, through which they have succeeded in building a nation and a true superpower, but it remains an American experience that cannot be simply copied elsewhere.
Like a dictator clinging to power, Trump has plainly told his fellow Americans that the elections were “rigged” and that the US would be governed by an “illegitimate president” should his victorious opponent Joe Biden be inaugurated as president, triggering ridiculous conspiracy theories in which even “extraterrestrial beings” may have interfered in favour of his rival.
Shockingly, Trump wanted the US army to interfere in his favour, replacing his defence secretary with another to that end. Though he vowed that there would be an “orderly” transition of power to his successor, Trump has abstained from admitting defeat in public. While it is true that more than 74 million Americans voted for Trump, in any democratic exercise, as the US has taught the world many times, a single vote can make the difference, and such a vote should be honoured. This is true for all, except for the defeated US president.
Even so, the US media has often not honoured this “single vote” theory as far as the situation on non-American soil is concerned. On the contrary, it has put countries in the line of fire when its “fair-haired boy” has not been picked in a given election process, using the same language of “fraudulence” and “rigged elections” used by Trump.
This is how US media outlets have portrayed such incidents elsewhere on the globe, except in countries allied with the US. The US government and media have usually preached the necessity of “respecting” the right of “protesters” to express their views no matter how this “right” may be exercised, brushing aside any counter-arguments. They have also rejected any need to listen to the other side of the story, whether from the governments concerned or the peoples themselves, dubbing the first as “dictatorial” and the second as “sycophants”.
With last week’s incidents taking place on American soil, the word “insurrection” has been employed, when this could easily have been replaced with “revolution” should other nations have been involved.
This is not a call for rehabilitating “autocracy,” but it is a call to heed the fact that Egyptians are culturally different from their opposite numbers in India, for example, and that the American way of doing business is not necessarily a standard. Even in the darkest moments in Egypt, prior or even after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak in the 25 January Revolution, no one stormed into the Egyptian parliament, and no one tried to create a state of chaos matching the scenes of protesters putting the US Capitol under siege to prevent the ratification of the US presidential elections.
Many Egyptians may, however, recall a similar incident when, under the rule of former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, his supporters placed Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court under siege to prevent the justices from ruling on a challenge revoking the elections to the now renamed Senate, the upper chamber of the Egyptian parliament.
It is time the US media in particular and the Western media in general revisited their stereotyped and partial covering of affairs in the Middle East and Africa. Their biased news covering has given audiences a false image of how things are done in African or Middle Eastern nations. It is high time that American journalists and correspondents considered the other side of the story and fact-checked the news before they publish it.
Fact-checking is no fantasy – it is a must, particularly when assessing the damage partial news covering may inflict on peoples and nations. In their book Elements of Journalism, US journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that the “first obligation of journalism is to the truth” and that the “journalistic truth” begins with a “professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.” However, most US correspondents have usually not done this while covering news of Africa and the Middle East, except when it comes to Israel. Most, if not all, of their stories have not been committed to the principle of verification, and they have therefore wrongly affected the way their audiences perceive a given nation, its people or the political situation unfolding in it.
Reporting the truth is not synonymous with trumpeting it. Rather, it is a process that begins with the professional collecting of data, their verification, and then the inclusion of as many different views as possible. Instead of using the refrain that “we tried to reach so and so for comment, but there was no response,” there is a need to do all that can be done to give space to opposing views, since otherwise a reporter is opinionated and guides his or her audience in the wrong direction.
The tough language used by the US media and officials about the storming of the US Capitol last week is a reminder that fair rules of impartial news covering ought to be heeded when reporting on incidents happening on US territory or elsewhere.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.