Colour revolution (sometimes called the coloured revolution) is a term that was widely used by worldwide media to describe various related movements that developed in several countries of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans during the early 2000s. The term has also been applied to a number of revolutions elsewhere, including in the Middle East. Some observers (such as Justin Raimondo and Michael Lind) have called the events a revolutionary wave, the origins of which can be traced back to the 1986 People Power Revolution (also known as the Yellow Revolution) in the Philippines.
Participants in the colour revolutions have mostly used nonviolent resistance, also called civil resistance. Such methods as demonstrations, strikesand interventions have been intended protest against governments seen as corrupt and/or authoritarian and to advocate democracy and they have also created strong pressure for change. These movements generally adopted a specific colour or flower as their symbol. The colour revolutions are notable for the important role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and particularly student activists in organising creative non-violent resistance.
Such movements have had a measure of success as for example in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s Bulldozer Revolution (2000), in Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004). In most but not all cases, massive street protests followed disputed elections or requests for fair elections and led to the resignation or overthrow of leaders considered by their opponents to be authoritarian. Some events have been called “colour revolutions”, but are different from the above cases in certain basic characteristics. Examples include Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution (2005) and Kuwait’s Blue Revolution (2005).
Government figures in Russia, such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stated that color revolutions are externally fueled acts with a clear goal to influence the internal affairs that destabilize economy, conflict with the law and represent a new form of warfare. President Vladimir Putin said that Russia must prevent colour revolutions: “We see what tragic consequences the wave of so-called colour revolutions led to. For us this is a lesson and a warning. We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia”.
Since the recent revolution in Serbia, this ousted President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, a series of ‘coloured revolutions’ have swept across Eastern Europe. These were the Rose revolution in Georgia (2003), the Orange revolution in Ukraine (2005) and the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005). In each case, after stolen elections, the media played an important role in catalysing public participation in mass protests, which led to success of each of the revolutions. This section will outline, the integral role the independent media played in each of these four revolutions.
To many political commentators and media scholars, it was clear that the independent media in Serbia “facilitated the regime change and paved the way for democracy”. Names of independent media broadcasters were even “as slogans during the numerous street protests during the 1990s, becoming “symbols of resistance” for democracy. In this case, the Serbian independent media fulfilled an overtly political function and were highly involved in coordinating and organizing protests throughout the decade prior to the revolution . These activities made the independent media particularly prone to pressure from government censors, especially after 1998 when Milosevic’s government cracked down on their efforts to undermine his authority. However, Western countries had significant interests in toppling Milosevic’s regime, so they stepped in to support Serbia’s opposition groups and the independent media. Thus, external financial and diplomatic assistance from foreign countries, particularly from the United States, played a vital role in protecting and amplifying the voice of the independent media. Assistance for the creation of the Asocijacija Nezavisnih Elektronskih Medija (Association of Independent Electronic Media) which was formed in 1993, turned out to be crucial for the survival of the Serbian independent electronic media after 1998, as the international support it received helped protect many broadcasters from state repression. External funding for media development was not insignificant and during the early 1990s the international community provided between US$7- 10 million to the former Yugoslavia for this goal, while after 1995 the US gave a further US$23 million and the European milion augmented this with another 17 million Euros.
As in Serbia, Georgia’s independent media played an important role in challenging legitimacy of their authoritarian government led by President Eduard Shevardnadze. Consequently, this meant that the independent media was often viewed by Shevardnadze as an enemy of the state. So in October 2001, Shevardnadze tried to “shut down Georgia’s most popular independent TV station Rustavi 2”. This prompted Rustavi 2 and other media outlets to draw widespread public attention to the governments heavy handed attempt at censorship, which “led to three days of non-stop protest demonstrations” against the actions of the government. These protests were so successful in mobilising popular support that they led to the resignation of several ministers, and enabled Rustavi 2 to continue broadcasting without further state interference. This turned out to be a critical win for the opposition parties. This is because when Shevardnadze attempted to steal the elections in November 2003, Rustavi 2 acted as a vital part of the opposition’s propaganda machinery, providing “almost non-stop” protest coverage and “inform Georgians about upcoming demonstrations and actions”. These protests were part of the Rose Revolution, which led to the ousting of Shevardnadze, and the election (in January 2004) of the opposition’s leader, Mikhail Saakashvili. During the protests Saakashvili was aware of Rustavi 2 sigufficance and “called on supporters to protect was Rustavi-2’s headquarters”.
As the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recognized: “The development of independent media is often considered to be the single greatest achievement of Georgia’s democratic transition.” Thus foreign assistance was arguably the key to the success of the independent media and of the Rose revolution, with opposition organisations receiving significant financial assistance from international democracy promoting bodies. In addition, Shevardnadze was placed under significant diplomatic pressure from the US government and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to leave the opposition organisations alone. It is interesting to note that the independent media that helped oust Shevardnadze, have now replaced their adversarial relationship with the government with a symbiotic one: “For instance, before the new elections on March 28, 2004, major TV stations announced the shut down of all political talk-shows and debates” and the abolishment of public debate of the elections.
The focal point for Ukraine’s Orange revolution was the December 2004 elections, in which authoritarian President Leonid Kuchma was accused of tampering with the electoral processes for his preferred candidate Viktor Yanukovich. Again the independent media played an important part in the success of the revolution. Indeed, prior to the revolution in July 2003, Andrii Shevchenko, the first president of the Independent Journalists Trade Union, argued that the “media is the thread which can be used to unravel the power of the establishment”. Coincidentally, around this time in mid-2003, two small media companies were able to secure a broadcast license for what was to be the opposition’s first TV station — Channel 5. Up until this point, Kuchma and his supporters had maintained control of “all the mainstream media outlets in the county”, which had enabled them to sustain an effective “information blockade” against the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.
A top Ukrainian television critic, explained how this information blockade was also used to denigrate opposition-led protests following the contested parliamentary elections in September 2002: “Initially the large protests in Kiev were not reported at all on national television, then the number of protesters who turned up was dramatically under-reported, and later the situation was misrepresented by showing images of street people and drunks when reporting on the protests”. Kuchma’s government had always tolerated some degree of dissent within society, but just before the 2004 elections they clamped down on Channel 5 by freezing their bank accounts and attempting to revoke their broadcasting license. However, Channel 5 still remained on air, so their staff launched a hunger strike on 25 October 2004 that was broadcast until the government stopped harassing them on 2 November 2004.
Channel 5 went on to play an important mobilising role during the revolution, providing information on where protests were taking place: they even had a participatory presence at the opposition rallies themselves on large TV screens which broadcasted Yushchenko’s speeches and provided news and music to the protestors in the streets. The situation in previous elections had been very different, as in September 2002, the Kuchma’s government only allowed TV stations to broadcast once the regime was in “full control of all the news rooms”. While Marta Dyczok suggests that this difference might be partly explained by presences of the large international media contingent covering the 2004 elections, it also seems likely that other more direct external assistance may have had a hand in explaining Kuchma’s comparably tolerant attitude towards dissent. This is because over the previous two years Ukrainian opposition groups had received around US$65 million from US democracy promoting organizations.
Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip revolution — which resulted in the ousting of President Askar Akayev — occurred in March 2005, following the disputed parliamentary elections. US democracy promoters (amongst others) were again working behind the scenes, providing US$26.5 million to various ‘independent’ groups between 2003 and 2004. That said, it appears that the US was not always interested in ousting Akayev, as for most of the 15 years he was in power the US maintained fairly positive relations with Kyrgyzstan. Such congenial relations were disrupted by 2003, a change which may be partly explained by Akayev’s greater diplomatic engagement with Russia.
During his long reign in power, Akayev had not any qualms with dosing down opposition newspapers that threatened his authority, so in May 2003 he forced an important opposition newspaper, Moya Stolitsa, out of business with a libel suit. Just one month later though, the indignant editor of Moya Stolitsa created a new opposition newspaper, called Moya Stolitsa-Novosti (MSN) which obtained funding from the US-based neoconservative organisation, Freedom House. In November 2003, the US then also funded the creation of a new independent printing press, on which MSM and other opposition papers were produced.
The Kyrgyz regime was demonstrably worried by MSN’s adversarial coverage and at one point they cut off the electricity supply to the newspaper’s offices: however, “pressure from foreign governments” came quickly which subsequently “forced” the Kyrgyz administration to stop harassing the ‘independent’ media. In this case, as in the lead-up to the other revolutions, the foreign diplomatic and financial support for MSN (and the opposition media) was vital, as MSN has been credited as being “a major, transformative force”, “fanning the fires of dissent” and printing the locations of opposition demonstrations, facilitating the Tulip revolution that drove Akayev out of the country.
As the revolutionary examples in this section have demonstrated, the media has a powerful role in both generating and harnessing public sentiment around specific issues. It then seems logical to conclude that if the media can rig the rules of the media game to create winners, it can certainly select losers.
The issues arising in this artide amply demonstrate the wide variety in the quality and quantity of the media’s coverage of protests: but how might these differences be explained, and what are there consequences for progressive social change? Answering these questions is particularly important, as it is fundamental to the maintenance of democratic institutions that citizens are able to participate actively in the administration of their society to determine their collective objectives14. On this point it is important to reflect upon the neoliberal environment in which the media currently operates (within Western democracies at least). This is because neoliberal politics facilitates the rising power of (predominantly Western) global media conglomerates and serves to marginalise the majority of citizens from meaningful participation in media policy making. Consequently for any social movement to draw beneficial attention to its activities in the media the first barrier they must overcome are the structural constraints of this communicative medium itself. Despite the extremely negative picture painted in the previous section, there are still some winners in the ‘media game’. So while losers, like the largest protest ever held in Washington, DC (the 2004 Women’s March) received just a “handful of march-related stories over a few days” in the New York Times and the Washington Post; other protesters have their message amplified by the media, as the first two sections of this article illustrated. Stefaan Waigrave and Jan Manssens suggest that the specific contextual factors that encouraged the media to support the White March protests in Belgium included
(1) clear opposition between the public and elites;
(2) a “highly emotional and symbolic issue that creates an atmosphere of consensus, emotion, and togetherness”;
(3) lack of a social movement — so that the media can appear objective and committed to the public good;
(4) a simple issue;
(5) a politically neutral, valence issue;
(6) a media environment that is “commercial and characterized by depoliticisation and de-ideologisation”;
(7) Turbulent times during which the reporting should take place (that is, not under normal circumstances); and lastly
(8) a high degree of public trust in the media. Mobilising criteria like these are unlikely to be met by many social movements, and are even less likely to be fulfilled by any progressive movements. However, whatever the ultimate reason, the media’s differential treatment of protestors is unlikely to be conducive to supporting the diversity and longevity of social movements required to support democratic forms of governance. This appears especially true when genuine grassroots social movements find themselves competing alongside manufactured (media friendly) corporate social movements or astroturf groups, whose business driven interests are cleverly disguised from their participants and the public. All social movements and interest groups should be able to compete on equal grounds for media coverage, not just a select few that satisfy the media’s news values — which usually act to “reinforce conventional opinions and established authority”.
Although the discussion so far may help explain why certain protests are ‘hacked’ by the media, it does not explain why the independent media has often been able to play such a crucial role in ousting governments during revolutions. Interestingly, similar forms of independent media exist in Western democracies, but there they have little influence on the public sphere and are unlikely to facilitate a popular revolution in the near future. In fact, the independent media in the West, like their counterparts in authoritarian regimes, have often been targets of secret state-led ‘wars
“This offensive included a variety of repressive actions, including: the monitoring of personal finances of underground journalists; arrests and assaults on staff members; government-inspired distribution hurdles for radical periodicals; loss of printing facilities; grand-jury subpoenas for editors and reporters; the release of ‘disinformation’ falsely attributed to underground media; publication of ‘underground’ papers secretly funded by the government; the bombing, burning, and ransacking of newspaper offices; and, possibly, the destruction of the transmitter of a listener- sponsored radio station.”
So how are the independent media in authoritarian states able to successfully challenge the status quo, when, in even democratic countries, governments have succeeded in repressing and marginalising their voices so effectively? Part of the answer to this question, seems to lie in the support foreign governments provide to the independent media (and social movements) in authoritarian states, financially and diplomatically, through both supportive and coercive mechanisms. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is important in this regard, as they are the main US-based democracy promoting organisation, and they act as a key coordinating body for many of the world’s democracy promoting organisations.
Since the late 1980s, Ellen Hume — who herself sits on the advisory council for the NED’s Center on International Media Assistance — estimates that international democracy promoting organisations have spent anywhere up to US$1 billion promoting independent media overseas. Many scholars have questioned the benign rhetoric surrounding the intentions of these ‘democracy promoters’, and they have illustrated that democracy promoting initiatives are usually strongly tied to the donor countries’ geo-strategic priorities, or more generically to the interests of transnational capitalism. Thus, in 1991, the NED’s president noted that “ of what [ NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA”
It is more appropriate to refer to the activities of the democracy manipulating community as promoting polyarchy (that is, low-intensity democracy) and explains that:
“The promotion of ‘low-intensity democracy’ is aimed not oniy at mitigating the social and political tensions produced by elite-based and undemocratic status quos, but also at suppressing popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life in the twenty-first century international order”.
The implications of such revelations are huge for the promotion of independent media organisations overseas (a phenOmenon dealt with in full by Barker, In Press, The National Endowment for Democracy and the promotion of ‘democratic’ media systems worldwide). However, rather than just focusing on revolutions supported by foreign so-called ‘democracy promoters’ (read: democracy manipulators), it is enlightening to examine a case of an unsuccessful revolution in which the independent media played a supportive role for the would-be-revolutionaries.
In Azerbaijan, on 15 October 2003, the incumbent authoritarian President Heydar Aliyev was accused of stealing the election results when he handed over control of his regime to his son, Tiham Aliyev. Thousands of citizens immediately took to the streets to protest the results, but unlike the other successful color revolutions in Eastern Europe, these protests were violently broken up, with hundreds of protestors imprisoned and one killed. For the three weeks following the elections, ilgar Khudiyev compared the media coverage of the protests between state and independent newspapers, and found that the independent media were supportive of the protestors. He also showed how the independent media, as in the colour revolutions, “cited the protestors more than official and authoritative sources” and quoted “those sources that strengthened the position of the protestors”. However, although external democracy manipulating organizations provided financial support to the independent media in Azerbaijan, it seemed that without international diplomatic support (as well), the calls for a revolution fell on deaf ears. So the revolution failed, with the US government even congratulating liham on his election ‘win’. In part, the contradictory nature of the international democracy manipulating communities support for Azerbaijan’s government may be explained by the favorable relations they maintain with the US and other transnational elites. A relationship that was further bolstered by their support for the ‘War on Terrorism’, and for American and British interests in the development of the geostrategic ally important Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. So while democracy manipulating groups are happy to support and defend independent media organizations overseas (within limits) as a means of promoting social change, they wifi only fully support regime change when they are certain that they can ensure a smooth transition to polyarchal political arrangements that will serve the interests of imperial transnational elites more effectively than the incumbent government. So without apparent contradiction, while the US is openly supportive of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime it also simultaneously supports the ousting of other less ‘friendly’ authoritarian governments in other countries (i.e. the colour revolutions).
Not surprisingly the selective nature of the US’s ‘democracy promoting’ policies are echoed in the American media, which effectively serves to manufacture public consent for elite interests. So the US media provided strong support for the ousting of Milosevic while they ‘ignored’ other revolutions: [ for example, in 2000 Greg Palast demonstrated how the Washington Post dismissed one of the biggest international stories of the year — the people’s revolution in Bolivia (which rejected the US corporate- led privatization of their water supply) — which it covered, or rather marginalized, in the Style section “dangled from the bottom of a cute little story on the lifestyle of some local anti-WTO protesters.” It seems that in the minds of the democracy manipulators and the US media that the Bolivian citizens were supporting the wrong type of democracy, that is, popular democracy rather than oligarchy.
A similar affront on popular democracy occurred in Venezuela, in April 2002, when President Hugo Chavez (who was democratically elected in 1998) was temporarily removed from power in coup. In a manner reminiscent of the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe, there was clear support for the ouster of Chavez by transnational elites. In fact, the group which led the coup against Chavez received financial support from the NED, while the coup itself also received widespread support from the local independent media and from “some sections of the international media”
Prior to the coup, the Venezuelan independent media — “which includes five out of the seven major TV networks and nine out of the 10 major daily papers” — had called for the ousting of Chavez, and made regular broadcasts encouraging people to participate in the coup. That is, they were working in direct opposition to the will of the majority of the Venezuelan public who had shown their overwhelming support for Chavez in numerous democratic elections. In the days following the coup, the radio, television and press then ignored the massive protests calling for the return of Chavez, casting a veil of invisibility over the protestor’s presence on the streets: this was clearly evident to Chavez’s supporters, who subsequently focused their countercoup campaign on the primary supporters of the coup, the media institutions. However, even when the media gave in to the protestors’ demands for media coverage, they depicted the pro-Chavez campaigners necessarily facilitate democratic decision-making. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that both internal and external efforts to undermine Chavez’s government as “the mob”, in stark contrast to their coverage of the protestors who led the coup, who were framed as “civil society”. So as this example frustrates, the presence of a vigorous independent media system, free from government control or manipulation, does not continue to this day, with the strong support of the US media and government.