The "Democratization of the Media" Leads to Greater Democracy in the Middle East

Feb 282011

Twitter and Facebook were key tools in bringing down two dictators – and they helped change how the world now perceives the Middle East, a panel of journalism experts said at "Covering Egypt: The Media and the Revolution." The event was sponsored by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"The delivery and the speed of information have never existed at this level before," said Al Jazeera anchor Riz Khan of the revolutionary movement that forced out Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and continues to rock the region.

Keynote Riz Khan says Al Jazeera now has a much more lenient policy of running stories by bloggers and tweeters.

Khan, host of a daily news program on Al Jazeera English, was joined by Mona Eltahawy, a columnist and Egypt expert; Jeffrey Ghannam, author of a new report from the Center for International Media Assistance titled "Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the Uprisings of 2011;" and Natasha Tynes, ICFJ director of Middle East programs. ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan moderated the discussion that drew an audience of about 300.

Social media is more than a tactical device to organize protests, several journalists said. It is also the first place young Arabs could freely express their opinions – including their frustration at chronic unemployment and corruption. "Social media changed the consciousness of the young people using them," Eltahawy said. "It basically allowed them to say, 'I count.' " In the virtual world, they could also get a picture of what could be – by seeing possibilities for youth in other countries.

The Arab region’s large "net generation" helps explain the growth of social media, Ghannam said. In six Arab countries – including Egypt – that tech-savvy, under-25 generation is more than half the population, and it’s at least one-third in the rest, he said. He cited estimates that put Arabic-speaking Internet users at 40 million to 60 million two years ago and predict 100 million by 2015.

"I believe we should give more, not less, credit to Facebook [and Twitter]," ICFJ’s Tynes said. Social media makes it harder for governments to keep secrets and tell lies, she said. Still, citizen journalists need to understand basic, fact-based reporting, she said, and that has been a core focus of ICFJ’s growing training programs in the Middle East and North Africa over the past five years.

Other panelists cautioned not to overstate the role of social media in recent events. "That gives credit to a tool, and you really have to credit people," Ghannam said. Eltahawy agreed: "Social media did not invent courage." She does, however, credit it with smashing Western stereotypes: The image of angry, threatening Arab men has been replaced with "a very cool young man in Tahrir Square advocating nonviolence."

The historic political shifts in the region have also allowed Al Jazeera English's news service to shine, with its fast, on-the-ground coverage. Its web traffic has spiked 2,500 percent, Khan said. Even before the popular uprisings, Al Jazeera English had established a network of bloggers and tweeters, and it made the groundbreaking call to run many of their accounts in real time. "We decided we're going to be much more lenient in the way we accept sources, and let the story tell itself,” Khan said. “It’s the democratization of media."

Panelists Mona Eltahawy, Jeffrey Ghannam and Natasha Tynes debate whether the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt can be called "Twitter revolutions."