Media playing central role in Arab uprisings

Social media may have played a central role in uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt but mainstream media is also growing in importance across the Arab world.
By John Tyler - RNW
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The situation varies country-by-country, but a remarkable trend can be seen: public pressure is leading to more freedom of expression in Arab media. This process has gone furthest in the two countries where uprisings succeeded in ousting the regime: Egypt and Tunisia. The media landscape in both countries is now in a state a flux, particularly in Egypt.

"You don't understand anything! Don't try to play the patriotic act! I'm a better patriot than you are! I went to war, and fought battles!"

That was Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq losing his temper on a live television talk show two weeks ago. The next day he resigned. In the new Egypt, a talk show brought down a prime minister.

Marianne Nagui of Free Voice, a Dutch foundation promoting independent media in the Middle East and elsewhere, says the Egyptians are in upheaval. “We are living in the wake of the revolution, and it’s very chaotic, and very, very disorganised.” All media outlets, be it newspapers, television, or social media, are saying whatever they like, and criticising whomever they please. It can be overwhelming, says Ms Nagui.

Officially the authorities are taking a hands-off approach, but the intelligence services remain active under the radar. So it can be difficult for journalists to know what they can and cannot cover.


Sameh Saeed runs a digital platform called Huquq which employs more than 20 journalists. He says intimidation is taking place, but it's not always clear who’s behind it. He describes a recent incident that he suspects was ordered by the military. A documentary film crew was filming a demonstration outside the former ministry of information when some men in plain clothes told them to stop. Their cameras were confiscated, and Mr Saeed spent one-and-a-half hours delicately negotiating with the armed men before the journalists managed to get away.

There has also been pressure on governments in other Arab countries to loosen up press restrictions. Journalists working for state television and newspapers demonstrated in Jordan last week, an act unthinkable just three months ago. Yemen has announced a new, more liberal media law - although critics say it’s a smokescreen behind which the authorities will continue to repress freedom of expression.

Referendum in Morocco

Restrictions on the press remain very firmly in place in Morocco, but King Mohammed VI has announced plans to hold a referendum on constitutional changes. Aboubakr Jamai, a Moroccan journalist who founded Le Journal back in the 1990s, says this is precisely what the opposition has been calling for.

Mr Jamai is not concerned about a possible crackdown on journalists. “The domestication of the press has reached its apex. It can’t get any worse.” Instead, he says, everything’s happening on Facebook. “If you’re a journalist and you wanted to cover the protests on 20 February, or if you want to cover the protest called for 20 March, you have to be on the right Facebook sites. Don’t waste your time elsewhere.”

Even hard-line countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia are not immune to the spirit of the times. In Syria, the ban on Facebook has been lifted. And social media is making inroads into Saudi Arabia, as well. Diverging from the trend toward more openness, the government in Iraq has reacted to weekly Friday protests by cracking down on the press.

Flashpoint Libya

Libya remains the current flashpoint. There the satellite TV stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are serving a familiar role: the only source of non-state news for much of the country. Idris Ibn Tayeb, a well-known Libyan writer and long-term critic of the Gaddafi regime, says that is changing in the eastern part of the country. Speaking from his home in Benghazi, Mr Ibn Tayeb says journalists there have been publishing short newspapers with news of the fighting and announcements. Voice of Free Libya radio is now broadcasting mediumwave transmissions from Benghazi which reach far into the west of the country, and a TV station in Benghazi has just launched on satellite.

But even when the fighting stops, Libya will have a lot of catching up to do according to Ibn Tayeb. There is very little to build on in terms of institutions, including the media. “During 42 years [of Gaddafi] we’ve been struggling with nothing.”

Thanks to Al Jazeera, Libyans were able to follow the talk-show-induced resignation of Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Mr Shafiq has become the personification of the new-found power of the media in the Arab world. And, while Mr Shafiq may have been felled after appearing on a traditional platform, his resignation demonstrates just how far the new media has penetrated the Arab world. The Supreme Military Council governing Egypt announced Mr Shafiq’s resignation, where else, on Facebook.