Did the independent media help produce the Arab Spring or did the revolutions succeed in liberating local media in the Arab world? This and many other questions were debated and discussed by Arab and international freedom of expression advocates and media practitioners and experts in Amman this week.
The Arab Spring was the buzzword in two consecutive international media conferences: Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) held its fourth annual conference where Arab investigative journalists met with fellow professionals from around the world. The ARIJ conference opened with a powerful keynote speech by Yosri Fouda, a former Al Jazeera investigator who has been running a TV talk show that was active in the Egyptian revolution.
Also this week, the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) organised the Media Freedom Defenders in the Arab World Forum, with a two-day open session in Amman and a third day closed working session at a Dead Sea hotel.
The role of the media and the Arab Spring was addressed in a study conducted by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in coordination with the CDFJ. One of the study’s main findings was that 53 per cent of those surveyed believe that Arab satellite channels helped "incite" the Arab Spring
Arab media practitioners, including satellite TV stations, insist that their actions are best described as informative and reflecting the reality, rather than playing an active and direct role in regime change.
By using the term "incite" regarding satellite stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya – owned and funded by governments or ruling families (emir of Qatar and a Saudi royal family respectively), it becomes easy to accuse these Gulf countries for having a direct role in the Arab Spring.
Arab revolutionaries also reject this accusation as they did when Westerners tried to call the movement that brought down the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes the Facebook revolution or the social media uprising.
Satellite television, as well as bloggers and social media activists, certainly contributed to the changes that the Arab world is experiencing. However, it would be highly insulting to the millions of Arabs who participated in unprecedented protests, as well as the tens of thousands who paid with their lives and livelihoods, to ignore their courage and determination.
While various forms of electronic media, especially those based outside a particular country witnessing unrest, have contributed to the Arab Spring, the latter have not been able to change long-standing media monopolies or regulations. In some countries further restrictions have been attempted.
In countries that have celebrated the fall of a long-standing dictator, the ability to change media regulations and the prevailing media environment have been much more difficult. State-run media continue to operate pretty much as before with slight changes. Senior editors or publishers in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt might have disappeared but the remaining staff and, more importantly, the media policy and direction has not changed very much. Observers at the media conferences noted the ease by which a state-run newspaper such as Al Ahram, which had been denying or belittling the size of the revolt, shifted almost overnight to supporting it. One observer noted how a Tunisian FM radio station also shifted seamlessly overnight. What to do with state-run media’s huge staff has naturally been a major headache for the new powers to be. No serious effort or thinking has been produced showing interest in changing this media to truly independent public service media.
Regulations allowing the creation of private and community media, especially in the audiovisual field, has not seen the light in these countries. Advocacy and initiatives for such media are required in order to translate the Arab Spring in the media field and not just at the level of the presidential palaces.