Sunday, March 25, 2012

March 22. Portugal.


The general strike of March 22 in Portugal was illustrated by several incidents where reporters covering the event were involved. The most widely spread was the aggression of Patricia Melo, a France Press photo reporter covering the demonstration at Chiado plaza in Lisbon. The police officers didn't like to be caught on camera and, possibly right after taking the photo shown below, Patricia Melo was violently hit with a baton - the aggression is depicted in the sequence shown at the top of this post, captured by a fellow photo reporter from Reuters.

Moments before, a photo by Patrícia Melo, AFP

But it wasn't just Patricia Melo who was beaten for the simple reason she was a news agency professional holding a camera. At the same place, José Sena Goulão from the Portuguese Lusa news agency was also hit violently by the police, requiring hospitalization, and this scene repeated itself all over the country, in yet another classic example of how governments deal with freedom of information, fact reinforced by precise instructions to public companies managers to ignore any information request about the general strike by the media.

These suppression, restriction and control of information attempts by those who hold power are a longtime widespread practice, and if today they are made more visible due to the fact that every citizen with a mobile phone is a potential photo reporter with the capability of publishing images across world wide social media platforms, we must remember that these attempts have always existed in more or less violent forms and with more or less serious results, depending on where and when they took place. In Chile, during the 70's, Patricia Melo might have conveniently "disappeared" after being treated at the hospital. In today's Iran, she might have disappeared even before getting to the hospital. Power always deals poorly with public demonstrations of discontent and protest, and time and again reacts with the same displeasure and disappointment of who is trying to do their best for those who, ignorants, react against their policies. After all, you either respect democracy or become anti-democratic.

Call it general strike or spontaneous demonstration or any other public activity that results in the manifestation of discontent, by more or less organized citizens, with the way they are being governed, the democratic playbook always says the same: one must emphasize the citizens' right to express indignation and their right to freedom of speech - corner stones of democracy itself - and right after that reduce those rights to the condition of mere catharsis, in any event impossible of overlapping or, God forbid, change the supreme right to govern bestowed upon the power holders by the same popular base that has every right to demonstrate their discontentment for the ones they elected.
Democracy as we know it gives absolute power and demands absolute submission - with the exception of the occasional public demonstration of discontentment, on the condition that it will extinguish itself within minutes, resigned to the power of its own vote. Always with the same paternalistic look on their faces of who doesn't understand quite well how those who chose to buy pig in a poke are displeased to find cat inside it, the ones in power explain how they were unaware of the real number of pigs before and, most of all, the pressing need to go with cat meat. All in the best interest of the nation.

Patrícia Melo pointing her camera, clearly threatening law enforcement agents.

The baton strike illustrated in this post is the expression of this paternalistic displeasure of who presumes to show to the world the expected image of responsibility and authority, and thinks the way to do it is to pass on to the masses the notion of respect, even resorting to the use of brute force to make sure no other image denies or discredits it. It's a practice out of sync with today's reality but one that stills holds the ability to convey a certain measure of reassurance to those watching from higher above. Nothing new or particularly effective, but still significant.

The second after.

The widespread aggressions of March 22, not just against reporters but against citizens demonstrating all over Portugal that day, demonstrate the discomfort power feels when confronted with public manifestations of popular discontentment and also the mentioned paternalistic displeasure, as if power is acting the part of a severe father that is forced to spank rebel children that know no better and are incapable of understanding the logic imposed for their own good, an attitude reinforced by the fact that in this story the "children" actually chose the "father".
This discomfiting displeasure has been growing in all Western democracies, the same ones that look at China as the coveted and forbidden (for now) fruit, in the hopes of following its steps. Ah, how everything would be so much simpler if citizenship were to be confined in iPad and iPhone factories, paid for by cents on the hour and with no other right but to work until you drop. We will get there. Or not.

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