The Arab region is experiencing a profound media shift, Jeffrey Ghannam* writes in a new report, Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions.
The year following the start of the Arab revolutions–in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and violent uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain–was followed by continued repression and threats to the exercise of free expression online and offline. But the year also saw great strides in the numbers of Arabs across the region turning to social media platforms and the ascendancy of online engagement.
Yet these were not Facebook or Twitter revolutions, however much cyberutopians would like them to be. However, the Internet’s potential as a tool that can help the process of democratization is undeniable, and of course the Internet also can be used for oppression by authoritarian governments in the Arab world and elsewhere. The enabling impact of social media networks and platforms–and the resulting vortex of bloggers, activists, journalists, lay citizens, and satellite networks that help disseminate online content for the majority of Arabs who are not online–has been firmly established.
As the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions enter their second year, along with an increasingly violent uprising in Syria, the battle for Arab cyberspace continues to mature, and bloggers, regime critics, opposition activists, and journalists continue to confront the risks of arrest or other severe repercussions. Meanwhile, demands for greater freedom of expression and media independence continue to be a rallying point.
- Tens of millions of online contributors are creating and sharing content and influencing the news and information channels throughout the region.
- Digital media are enabling the blending of journalism, citizen journalism, media activism, and entertainment, often using various platforms, including traditional media, to reach and engage audiences. The common denominator is the use of digital technologies as platforms for news content and for engagement and mobilization.
- While social media tools have enabled greater freedom of expression, Arab governments and religious groups, such as in Tunisia, are targeting journalists and bloggers, including a recent death threat, against one popular blogger for reporting on issues related to religion.
- Following the revolutions, the battle for the Arab blogosphere has turned from being a competition over accessing the Internet and circumventing government controls to a cyberwar for the predominant narrative through Facebook, Twitter, and traditional media. Arab governments, and some political parties, are attempting to influence the narrative from the region, through the use of social media, cyberattacks, and Twitter trolls (persistent counter tweeters) against global critics.
- Social media is reinvigorating traditional print and broadcast media, including satellite networks, which are adopting multi-platform strategies. While satellite networks are attracting millions of views and some print media are also attracting hundreds of thousands of “Likes” on Facebook, other satellite and print outlets have attracted relatively fewer followers.
- Social media is serving as political cover: News outlets are recognizing the benefit of using social media to preempt official repercussions by disseminating sensitive stories first on social media sites and in other cases to gauge possible reaction before going to print or air.
Social media’s potential represents the brightest hope for greater freedom of expression in the Arab region, enabling tens of millions of people, and ultimately many more, to actively pursue civic engagement, free and fair elections, political accountability, the eradication of corruption, as well as free, independent, and pluralistic media in a rapidly changing media environment.
Arab governments, with support from the international community, will be expected to adapt to the changing Arab media landscape as increasing numbers of Arabs go online. The growing checks on government power and the role of media in the democratic process are among the most encouraging developments in the region’s contemporary history.
But the advances are not guaranteed. How successfully the emerging and legacy Arab governments reckon with digital technologies and the new media ecosystem propelled by the youth, journalists, citizen journalists, activists, as well as innovative transnational satellite networks and privately owned media outlets, may come to define the future of these governments and the region.
While the environment for freedom of the press and freedom of expression has improved, the potential impact of conservative majorities in Tunisia and Egypt and uprisings and protests elsewhere make clear that universally recognized protections will likely take time. Media environments may become more constrained than they were under deposed autocratic regimes, as greater official scrutiny and control is sought over what is said and disseminated online. Faced, however, with the reality that seeking absolute control of the Internet is futile, and that the critical mass of those who are demanding political, social, and economic change using digital media will likely find a way around the latest firewalls, a few Arab governments have recognized the benefits of using online platforms.
For now, it appears that the Arab cyberspace is primed to enable an evolving cyberwar, as emerging and legacy governments compete to influence the narratives unfolding across the region. For some governments and political parties, the attempts to dominate the narrative in any way possible may be an end in itself. The narrative in support of social change, however, appears inexorable, as evidenced by the growing numbers of Arabs online, millions of whom are influencing the news and information exchanges throughout the region and globally. It is their narrative, after all, that has also inspired protests and social movements around the world.
This is an extract from Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions (links added), published by the Center for International Media Assistance. CIMA is an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
*Jeffrey Ghannam is a lawyer, writer, and development practitioner in Washington, DC, who has contributed widely to the analysis and debate over social media in the revolutions for CIMA, the Economist magazine debates, the Washington Post, the United Nations, Chicago Public Radio, and Frost Over the World, hosted by Sir David Frost. He served on the 2012 Freedom House committee analyzing freedom of the press in the Middle East and North Africa. Since 2001 he has served in numerous media development initiatives as a trainer and evaluator as well as a Knight International Journalism Fellow in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Qatar. A media law specialist, he instructed on the intersection of law and journalism and on war reporting as the Howard R. Marsh visiting professor in journalism at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As a journalist, he was a staff writer and editor at the Detroit Free Press. He also served as a legal affairs writer at the American Bar Association Journal in Chicago, and was on staff at the New York Times in Washington, DC. He has contributed to the Boston Globe from Detroit and Time magazine in Cairo.