“Are you sure about coming back here now?” My cousin in Antananarivo was a bit hesitant about the wisdom of my plan to visit the family while the political crisis was still weighing on the daily lives of Malagasy citizens. I had not been back to my home country in nine years until this summer. Prior to that, I went back every year since I left Madagascar after high school. It may have seemed like a peculiar decision to go back when the situation was less than ideal but it was the one time when my work would allow me to stay for almost a full month.
Madagascar is mired in an ongoing political power struggle–often waged through partisan media outlets–between current President Andry Rajoelina, once a disc jockey and the former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, and his rival, former President Marc Ravalomanana.
While covering Madagascar for Global Voices, I have seen an information malaise split the Malagasy media along the same bitter, partisan political allegiances tearing our Indian Ocean island into two camps. One of the causes of the current crisis was former president Ravalomanana’s closing of Viva television, a station owned by then-opposition leader Rajoelina. Two broadcasters then controlled by Ravalomanana were torched in ensuing tit-for-tat violence. Since Rajoelina seized power in March with the backing of the army, his transitional government and security forces have in turn targeted media outlets loyal to his ousted rival or critical of the administration.
This month, I had the opportunity to talk to several reporters and bloggers while in Antananarivo and in the northwestern Mozambique Channel city of Mahajanga. The vast majority of them agreed to be quoted only if their names were kept anonymous. Each of my conversations with reporters there always happened in a secluded place, away from potential eavesdroppers. The fear of denouncement was the most common striking aspect of all the conversations. I realized from the interviews that many members of the press feared their colleagues in the newsroom would single them out as detractors of the current regime. “The atmosphere in the newsroom has become very tense. No one is speaking freely for fear of being accused of trying to destabilize the government and promote social disorder,” said one journalist.
I met, for instance, with veteran journalist Evariste Ramanatsoavina, who worked with Radio Mada, a station owned by ousted president Ravalomanana. His station was banned by the new administration on the same vague accusations used by the previous government to shut down Viva. Ramanatsoavina was imprisoned for two weeks before a judge found that there was insufficient evidence to the charges of “broadcasting false news” against him.
Another reporter working with MaTV, a private broadcaster, recounted to me the day soldiers invaded their newsroom without a warrant looking for footage of army excesses. An army commander threatened to shut down the station if MaTV did not stop reporting on the military, he said. Since then, journalists at the station’s sister print publication, Ma Laza, have stopped signing articles with their real names, he added.
Until recently, online information was ignored by the administration; repression focused on traditional media. In fact, only less than 1 percent of the Malagasy population has access to the Internet, according to Internetworldstats. The fact that print media is often under pressure in Madagascar is indicative of the critical role it plays in shaping public opinion. Despite the endemic poverty of the Malagasies, the literacy rate is still evaluated at a decent level: 68-70 percent in Madagascar. It is not uncommon to see people lining up in the streets to read the headlines of newspapers even if they won’t buy them. However, with intense political tensions and commercial interests at stake, a lot of the information carried in traditional media during the crisis was either manipulated or incomplete, leading the general population to grow disillusioned about the veracity of the news they read in the paper.
One veteran journalist, who has been in print journalism for decades and is respected among his peers as an independent thinker, was not surprised: “When one paper says one thing and the other one states the complete opposite, it is very difficult to sort out facts from rumors. One can tell easily that newspapers have grown more polarized during the crisis. It’s as if some of them followed a logic of partisanship instead of a logic of reporting.”
Censorship takes multiple forms in the current information malaise in Madagascar, from army threats, financial pressure put on printing press owners, to flooding of daily news broadcasts with communiqués and press conferences from the government. There is also self-censorship out of fear of being severely penalized financially. I listened to journalists recount exhaustive lists of investigations that were aborted for various reasons. A young journalist at one of Madagascar’s largest newspapers explained that she was given a choice between her career and pursuing an investigation of government appropriation of a private food factory: “I was told that I was free to investigate whatever I wanted but that the paper would not condone any of my research nor will it publish the findings.”
On the other hand, Malagasy news Web sites, such as Sobika, Topmada, Madatsara, and many bloggers were able to document in detail the violence and street protests by posting unedited photos and firsthand testimonies. The use of SMS-to-computer and microblogging platforms (twitter.com/malagasytwit) also permitted rapid collection of information that was just not possible through traditional media. This new form of digital media filled a void in the need for real time information by Malagasy citizens but also provided an alternative point of view that political leaders may not have foreseen until late in the crisis. On June 26, Topmada announced it was indefinitely suspending its coverage. We later found out it was due to threats to the editor’s relatives.
Judging from the current tensions in Madagascar, which have reportedly led to the deaths of at least 130 people, including journalist Ando Ratovonirina of Radio Télévision Analamanga, reconciliation between Malagasies will have to start with regaining trust toward the agents of information. Elections are planned for the end of 2009, and we all hope that transparency will be fostered and encouraged before and during the electoral process. Otherwise, the malaise may still linger long after what would otherwise be welcome closure.