Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Saturday, 12 March 2011

How foreign media affect revolutions

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor

Libyan anti-government protesters shouts slogans while waving their country's former national flag during a protest in central Benghazi on 10 March

There is nothing quite as exciting as a revolution. It sweeps up people of all types and classes and makes them braver, more generous, more resourceful than their usual, everyday selves.

Suddenly, after the long years of keeping their heads down, they are prepared to give their lives for liberty - or at least to let you film the shooting in the street from their upstairs window.

A revolution, for a few days at least, allows people to be what they would ideally like to be.

Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya - in their different ways have all been exhibiting this uplifting sense of liberation.

"Welcome, welcome!" shouted a revolutionary soldier at a roadblock on the coastal road in central Libya the other day as my team and I drove towards the front line.

He pressed water and fruit and bread on us. In the early days of any revolution, journalists are always treated as friends of the uprising. It is not necessarily true, and perhaps it never is.

But whereas the government loyalists usually see the international press as part of the subversive process that has brought the trouble about, the revolutionaries greet you enthusiastically.

You are, after all, sharing their dangers and privations, and they love you for it. And of, course, for the first time you are showing their side of the story.

Exposing the truth

For 41 years, Colonel Gaddafi has carried out his unconventional, sometimes cruel experiment in government.

Supposedly it has all been done by and for the people. And for those people suddenly to be able to tell the world's press openly that the old system was actually run by a corrupt and hated clique, is a liberation in itself.

The BBC's John Simpson in Libya
The more vulnerable a country is to Western pressure, the more likely its leaders are to step down when a revolution comes

Sometimes this revelation of what people really think has been enough on its own to bring down the ancient regime.

The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 happened essentially because people rose up and confronted the crass fiction that the state was run for them and by them.

So the foreign press plays a big part in any revolution.

The four countries in the Middle East which journalists could get to easily - Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and surprisingly Libya - are the ones where the big convulsions have taken place.

You do not need special press visas to get to Tunisia, Egypt or Bahrain. And the eastern part of Libya, bordering on Egypt, is the part which threw off Colonel Gaddafi's rule first - so it was easy to fly to Cairo, drive to the border and be welcomed with open arms by the Libyan revolutionaries who were in control there.

In countries where the comings and goings of the international press are heavily controlled - places like Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and so on - it is far harder to show the outside world what is happening.

The would-be revolutionaries cannot get the external attention that acts like a draught on an open fire and brings all those statements from the White House and Downing Street and the UN headquarters.

Revolutionary process

It was Edmund Burke, back in the very early days of the first modern revolution - the one in France - who foresaw that all the freedom, equality and fraternity would soon disappear and lead to terrible excesses - executions, torture, repression.

January 1979, Iranian protesters hold a up a poster of Ayatollah Khomeini
The Shah of Iran fled after months of increasingly violent protests in 1979

That is what happened in Libya in 1969 after Colonel Gaddafi's coup took place, only journalists could not get in there.

It also happened in Iran 10 years later, when the Shah was overthrown - but it was easy to go there.

The combination of press attention and Western disapproval played its part in bringing him down.

I reported on all that myself, and only the other day in London, near my house, an elderly refugee from Iran started shouting at me in the street: "Now you see what the revolution you started has done to the whole world."

The more vulnerable a country is to Western pressure, the more likely its leaders are to step down when a revolution comes.

Colonel Gaddafi has so far managed to hang on because he is too way out, too friendless internationally

If President Hosni Mubarak had not been America's ally, he might still be in his impressive palace in Heliopolis now.

Colonel Gaddafi has so far managed to hang on because he is too way out, too friendless internationally for anyone to be able to stop him using his tanks and air force to bombard his own people.

So the West's care for human life and its free press are great at bringing down the less extreme dictators and not so good at bringing down the really nasty ones.

It is something to muse on.

As for my team and me, we are taking a few days off from the revolution and we have come here to Cairo.

We have not had a shower or a change of clothes in days, and we have been bombed and shot at more times than we can remember.

Revolutions, whoever they are against, all share a basic similarity.

Reporting on this one in Libya, or the one last month in Egypt, makes you part of a process which goes right back to the storming of the Bastille.

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