BETTA: On the Perils of Oversimplification
It is telling that of the dozens of Nicaraguan activists and exiles I interviewed about the 2018 protests, not one allowed for their real name to be published for fear of government reprisals.
Since it brutally cracked down on initially peaceful protesters in the spring of 2018, the government of Daniel Ortega has continued to respond to its loss of public legitimacy with systematic abuse and repression of dissent. According to Amnesty International, at least 80 Nicaraguans arrested for their affiliation with the protests have remained in arbitrary detention, despite the amnesty pledged by Ortega in March as part of the negotiations with the alliance of opposition groups.
If human rights violations are now less visible than they were when the crisis unfolded on the streets, they are only more prevalent. Reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, and harassment of journalists abound, and many of the thousands of exiles hiding in Costa Rica fear that Ortega’s paramilitaries followed them into the country.
The scale of repression successfully stifled attempts at open manifestations of protest of the kind that attracted brief international attention when the demonstrations first began. Many of the protesters previously made up Ortega’s base and only turned against the government after being shocked into action by its violent reaction to demonstrations against social security reforms in April 2018. They are now resigned to anonymous advocacy online and to staging one-minute flash protests, unsure what to expect of the national elections planned for 2021.
But the prolonged crisis has not attracted much international attention outside of the region, save for when the protests first unfolded. For a moment when the protest first started, the scarce reporting exploded with images of barricades, chaos, and masked protesters. Soon after, that short-lived spur of recognition dissipated and major U.S. news outlets seem to have moved on, despite the crisis arguably having aggravated. Even fairly news-savvy North Americans and Europeans tend to offer a puzzled, unknowing look when Nicaragua is mentioned.
If the silence on Nicaragua is deeply troubling, it is not exceptional.
Places typically outside of the international media radar, most often in the Global South, seem to only warrant reporting if something “groundbreaking”, flashy, or headline-worthy, happens—a unique moment of mobilization that can be caught on film, visible demonstrations of violence, or perhaps a war. As it happened in Nicaragua, the tendency is to look the other way and reallocate funds once there are no more flags being waved, no barricades standing, and no chants being heard on the street—even if the reason for the silence is that the situation has worsened.
To be sure, this state of affairs is largely driven by the financial constraints faced by media institutions, rather than ill will of reporters or editors.
All the same, however, the overexposure of readers to images of violence and simplified narratives creates a dangerous and exoticising perception that places like Nicaragua are somehow different and devoid of the complexity and nuance of our own politics and institutions. It renders the realities of those events so utterly unrelatable that they seem to exist in a space completely distinct to the one we inhabit in our day-to-day life. If inadvertent, the effect is akin to the exoticisation that Edward Said, founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, described over 40 years ago in “Orientalism.”
Again, I am mindful that financial constraints and readers’ short attention spans make any approximation at doing justice to all stories impossible. I am also not immune to the alluring romanticism of mass anti-authoritarian protests. But if complex political events are reported on without background, nuance, and follow-up, it begs the question: what are we learning, really, from the news we consume?
One does not learn much about the situation in Nicaragua by watching the barricades. Having spent months trying to understand the 2018 protests, including their context and aftermath, I was baffled by how difficult to access basic information was: How did the protesters mobilize and why in that particular moment? Who were the actors involved? Why did a big portion of the citizenry initially support Ortega? What made them join the movement later? Did parts of the movement become violent? If so, what effect did that have? What did the negotiations look like? Why have the protests not succeeded in overthrowing Ortega? How did Ortega end up in power in the first place, instead of the more accomplished members of the Sandinista movement? Why were the Republicans the ones raising alarm in the U.S.? What happened after the dust settled?
Imagine how much better we could understand what is happening in Nicaragua, and the politics of standing up to abuses of power at large, if our coverage of protests abroad was as three-dimensional as that of domestic events. After all, is the role of journalism not to inform us in order to empower us as citizens?
In contexts where domestic media is weakened and the right to free expression threatened, international media often becomes the only provider of unbiased, reliable analysis. Having grown up in a transitional democracy myself, I am intimately familiar with the respite from partisanship that outside narratives by responsible journalists can sometimes provide. But even domestically, we have much to learn from what happens outside of our borders. For this to happen, we need to be able to see deeper into the stories.
Mass protests and state violence are only the most extreme manifestations of complex political processes. By ignoring the complexity, we do a disservice not only to the people standing up for their rights in Nicaragua, but to our own understanding of the political conditions under which authoritarian leaders and human rights abuses come about, and under which social movements succeed or fail.
The exoticisation and simplification that I described earlier create a perception that atrocities can only happen in the two-dimensional elsewhere. That because “those places” are somehow fundamentally different, we, with our superior, civil politics, are immune to authoritarian leaders. That we will never have to raise a barricade because, to echo Sinclair Lewis’ ever-more-relevant book, it can’t happen here. Given that this is what every victim of conflict and authoritarianism I have ever talked to thought until the very day they were proven otherwise, it is a dangerous conviction to have.
“What can I do?”, you ask? Reporters are bound by what their editors want communicated and editors are in turn bound by what we, the readers, are willing to engage with. Reporting is necessarily simplified when the growing desire to write feature-length pieces is not reflected in the public’s desire to read them.
So, here is a homework assignment for this week, if you ventured this far (which you are statistically unlikely to have done): next time you come across a long-form piece on a topic that interests you, do make the time to read it in its entirety. Revel in the nuance—the existence of journalism that provides more than what a mobile notification can depends on us as readers.