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unspintheg8.org: The Media Gets the Massage - the uneven battle over the media

Submitted by Kees Stad on Tue, 06/12/2007 – 15:15.

“It’s a battle lost before started”, was our first reaction when on Tuesday 5 June, one day before the start of the G8 summit, we tried to pay a visit to the international media centre in Kühlungsborn, a seaside resort not far from Heiligendamm. Non-accredited journalists such as ourselves were not able to enter, but the German documentary filmmaker C. who travelled with us did manage to get an accreditation and would later go inside with a camera.

Because the media centre had not yet been officially opened, the fences surrounding it had not been fully erected so we could walk around them and have a look inside. The preparations were in full swing: big video screens were being set up, a dance group was practising an opening sequence, golf buggies with flags of the G8 countries (and one EU buggy) were already standing in line and massage therapists were already warming up in the much-debated massage parlours located in colourful design tents. On both sides of the media village – set up by the Dutch tent constructor De Boer – the big TV stations were setting up their podiums from which they would do the reporting.

The accredited journalist went inside to get his press package and came back 20 minutes later with expected stories about the generous offers of food, drinks and entertainment with which the journalists were being kept happy. Everything for free and offered in abundance. The instructive booklet handed out to journalists picking up their accreditation leaves no doubt: the G8 summit has organised a well-structured programme of press conferences and photo shoots. In order to enjoy the programme, however, the journalist has to step on a train bringing him/her straight to Heiligendamm. The train is protected on both sides with rows of razor wire and journalists “are not allowed to go to event locations [i.e. Heiligendamm] on their own”, the booklet warns them in bold letters. In other words: journalists who try to reach Heiligendamm via regular roads – and therefore through masses of demonstrators via the three entry points at the fence around Heiligedamm – will be denied access. The only way into Heiligendamm is through the media centre and on the train.

This tactic is known from other summits. The media village is set up in such a way that once the journalists are inside they do not want (or dare) to leave again to places where they could meet normal people or even encounter activists. Meanwhile, they are lavished with luxuries and messages from the leaders. We experienced a highpoint of this tactic during the EU summit in Amsterdam in 1997, when the media village was set up in such a way that once entered it was almost impossible to leave. When the 1997 summit had ended, we witnessed journalist all over the city logging wheeled suitcases – part of the press package – stuffed with presents from the EU (bottles of wine, computers, …). But it is a tactic that is only partially successful. Fortunately, most journalists are not so foolish as to fall into the trap and, after a while at least, feel the need to listen to other stories than the propaganda fed to them by their hosts.

Stark contrast

The manner in which the press is treated by activists can hardly differ more from the warm reception they receive by the G8 organisers. ‘Commercial media’ is not allowed to enter the three action camps where thousands of activists are camping with the aim to block the G8. There are strict rules to keep the media outside. There are several good reasons for this choice. Many activists see commercial media as an extension of the powers they are criticising and do not want to have to deal with them. Next to this, it is known that German police use media images to make a comprehensive database of activists’ faces to aid in the prosecution of more militant activists. Finally, the blockades could themselves be endangered by film crews making pictures of activists planning them. But media presence also leads to much distraction: every time a journalist or film crew walk into a tent where people are holding meetings about actions, the meeting has to be stopped to answer media questions or to escort journalists outside.

Despite all these hindrances, the camp organisers do their best to be at the service of media. At the entrance of each camp they set up a press tent where journalists can find answers to their questions. They created a space just outside the camp where journalists can film and make pictures and a few times they organise a tour through the camp, warning activists and campers beforehand that journalists are present. One such tour was joined by 100 journalists, leaving a rather surrealist impression on the activists watching on. The press group of the camps works day and night, trying to answer an array of requests. In the Dutch case, it did not always succeed: for example, when a Frisian paper was asking to interview activists form Freesia (Friesland). After searching the camp for possible interviewees, the two Frisians that were found had no interest in giving interviews. Now you can only hope the journalist concerned is not resentful and writes a negative piece about activists…

Against the millions

It is an unfair battle. Against the millions of perfumed & powdered journalists in the G8 media camp stand a few overworked and non-paid media activists in damp tents with mobile phones that fail more often than they work because the GSM network is continuously ‘overloaded’. Where the G8 has professional media teams with well-paid PR-experts, the opposition has people who are busy with preparing blockades and who also have to take on chores to keep the camp going. The camps are organised in ‘neighbourhoods’ (barrios) that hold a meeting twice a day in order to split tasks. The toilets have to be cleaned, thousands of people have to be fed every day, security teams to protect the camp against Nazis and police raids, and infrastructure has to be set up, etcetera. And no one is paid a penny. In camp Reddelich (where around 3000 people are camping) two ingenious shower spots have been constructed where 20 people can shower at the same time under cold garden hoses…

The realisation that the protests against the G8 also include a battle in the media is all-present. Especially after the riots ending the demonstration on 2 June, which marked the beginning of the protests, when the most fantastic rumours started circulated about the violent character of demonstrators, many felt that the media battle had now begun. Dutch activists then tried to answer queries of the Dutch media. First, all their requests to travel with a group of activists to the blockades or to stay in the camp had to be turned down in a friendly fashion. At the same time, however, media activists try to provide them with as much information as possible. The circumstance in which this was taking place, however, is far from ideal. Access to the internet and newspapers is limited in the camps so you don’t have a good picture of what has been reported about the protests so far. So as not to make appointments in the camp, where filming is not welcome, we make an appointment early in the morning in the nearby village of Bad Doberan to give an interview with a film crew present. With a few hours sleep and a heroic attempt to shower under ice water at 8am, you have to answer questions with uncombed hair, in-between three preparatory meetings for actions whilst your phone continuously rings because your Media Bus has just been confiscated by police with the accusation that it is coordinating ‘militant actions’. The agreement to stay in contact the day after fails to take shape because we are all arrested during a blockade and spend the rest of the Thursday in Guantanamo-like cages whilst all telephones and personal belongings have been confiscated…

Typical is also a live debate I am allowed to take part in the radio programme ‘Met Het Oog op Morgen’ on “the violence of the demonstrators”. It takes place at 11.30 pm via an old mobile phone in the midst of 3000 noisy fellow demonstrators after having spent the whole day running back and forth between blockades and demonstrations. Then try and explain that it is predominantly the police that are using violence and that the decent NGOs have to realise for once that they are just as problematic because they are not able to stand against the neo-liberal disasters that we are facing today…

Trump card

Facing the thousands of molly cuddled journalists in the media village you could be tempted to throw in the towel. However, a few factors are in our favour. Firstly, it becomes evident that the protests are so massive and diverse that journalists are attracted to them en masse. That does not yet imply they are also interested in our story about why we protest, but in any case it means they leave behind the safe village surroundings. Then what follows is a classic case of agenda-setting: the demonstrators have partially succeeded to put their critique of the G8 clearly on the agenda. Now the art (of demonstrators who are intending to block the G8) is to make sure that the media does not only give voice to the big NGOs and dogmatic Marxist groups who are not involved in the blockades and are merely freeloading on the spectacle. They, of course, have an easy time talking (and acting): they are not involved in the confrontational frontline actions, and even distance themselves from them and, unlike us, have no need to protect a largely criminalised ‘membership’ from further criminalisation and prosecution.

A god-sent gift therefore is the incident on Wednesday 6 June, when a group of four police agent provocateurs are detected at a clearly peaceful blockade. The group of men is found logging stones to the blockade, trying to agitate the demonstrators to start attacking the police, but they do it so clumsily that the demonstrators start being suspicious and accuse them of being police. Three of them escape, but the fourth is overpowered and recognised by some demonstrators as a plain-clothed police officer from the northern German city of Bremen. After the initial denial, the police can no longer escape the hard facts and admit their use of agent provocateurs in the media: ( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,487487,00.html). This story further hardens earlier claims by demonstrators that many escalations during the demonstration on 2 June were provoked by police teams.

Another success was the fact that the journalists’ train to Heiligendamm was blockaded several times. Demonstrators had promised to block all entry points to the summit and did not spare the privileged media. There was an attempt to transport journalists via boat to Heiligedamm which failed due to wild waters, so that the media had to return to the village to report on other events than the scheduled G8 press junkets. Excepting Volkskrant journalist Hans Wansink, who, already in the run-up to the summit, had given his approval of every state utterance whilst relentlessly mocking demonstrators.

The perfect apotheosis was the press conference held by the ‘Clowns Army’ in Kühlungsborn on Friday June 8. Whilst everyone was holding press conferences, the clowns – who were actively involved in the demonstrations with a whole army – decided to also hold one in the same seaside resort that the media village was located. Rows of riot police tried to stop the cheerful group to walk towards the beach, but in vain. The crowd was too flexible to be stopped and trickled through the rigid police blocks, carrying water wings, inflatable ducks and whole plastic pools. Once arrived at the beach it appeared that the German TV stations NDR and ARD just started their live closing event. The podium was quickly filled with clowns and other demonstrators grabbing the microphones to make announcements, upon which groups of dangerous-looking riot police pulled them off the stage under the eyes of the audience outside and behind the TV sets.

The presenters had to finish the rest of the programme surrounded by riot police whilst a clown choir shouted demands of “an objective press” and the exclamation the “we are all 129a” (the Article of the German Criminal Code that was applied against the G8-critics whose houses were raided a month before the summit). Football slogans (“So Sehn Gewinner Aus! So Sehn Gewinner Aus!”) accompanied the finale of the TV broadcasting attempt.

Direct action, also in the media battle, was the trump card of the demonstrators in Heiligendamm.