“For years there was no faith in the traditional media in Tunisia” said blogger Slim Ayedi, one of the speakers during the second session of the Euro-Med seminar about journalism and the social media held earlier this week in Brussels.
“No one was interested in public TV because it was not credible..money for the traditional media went to the politicians..it was in this context that the Arab Spring took place and why the social media became so popular.”
Ayedi was one of the bloggers who contributed to the galvanisation of the people because he translated what was going on “on the ground”. He used YouTube and Flickr to convey the images he captured around him. ”Bloggers can help to change the way people look at things.”
Touching on the sensitive issue of control was Damien Abad from the EP delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council. “It’s true that on the Internet things can get out of control but that too is part of democracy.” Having said that, while readers are hungry for content, he said the rights and private lives of people as well as confidentiality still need to be respected.
Algerian blogger Kamel Daoud told us, “I’m a blogger and yet I’m not a blogger in the same way that Algeria is not a dictatorship nor is it a democracy. It is not a normal situation, it is ‘a kind of state’. We have more or less a free press and there is some form of freedom of expression.”
Like many of the Arab countries it is through Facebook and blogs that Algerians are finding their voice. Twitter is “not yet fashionable” but it is the Internet which allows Algerians to read news not found in the so-called independent press.
Daoud pointed out that the presence of bogus newspapers and anonymously run blogs is very real.
Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake pointed out that she was only elected because of the social media. One of the platforms of her political party is that access to information through the Internet is a fundamental right. “The social media have broken through the manipulation of information and power”, she added. ”It is not surprising to find that those who wish to consolidate power know more social media than the citizen. Communication is monitored and spied on, and in extreme cases when people are tortured a transcript of their text messages and FB interactions are shown to them as proof of their ‘transgressions’”.
Ms Schaake called for wider dispersion of the Internet without censorship or surveillance and that the EU’s position on this issue could impact the world.
“During the recent British riots, China and Iran offered their advice to the UK on how to quell the riots by blocking social media…that should tell us a lot. I am not a fan of over-regulation. … I think that provocative language can be met with a counter argument.”
The reality of how dangerous the Internet is perceived by dictators was brought home to us by Libyan blogger Ahmed Alfaitouri . When the revolution started in Benghazi, Internet access was immediately blocked. It was his next statement, however, which had us hanging our heads in shame: ”In the name of oil, Libyan people were forgotten and Gaddafi could do what he liked. we were invisible to you, we were not human.”
This was said without bitterness, just as a statement of fact in the same way he acknowledged that Benghazi being 3000 miles away from Brussels led to communication problems.
His last plea was for us “not to forget the victims who started the FB revolution and paid with their lives.”
We learnt from a Jordanian blogger that while 22% use FB in his country, Twitter is mostly used by politicians and businessmen (which led me to wonder why they would prefer this brief rather limiting format). Mobile use has increased drastically as has the use of Google and YouTube.
He made an interesting observation, ” it takes you three times longer to write something and wait for a reply than it does to hear something and reply verbally..this means you have a longer time to think and hopefully, weigh what you say.”
The discussion continued with participants pointing out that the Internet is a doubled-edged sword striking a blow as much for democracy as for terrorism ..after all it was Bin Laden who was the first extremist to use YouTube for his own ends.
The whole media landscape has been transformed as anyone can now upload images, opinions and news… ” traditional journalists risk losing their jobs,” one speaker quipped.
On the other hand, the mainstream media has reacted by asking readers to send in their news, opening up to bloggers and making space for ‘spontaneous journalists’.
It is not all, rosy however …as we are all very much aware, even this social tool can be infiltrated and manipulated. And if marginalised groups such the illiterate, the poor and women do not have access than they risk being even more isolated.
On his part Maltese MEP Simon Busuttil described how he was added to a racist FB group without his knowledge, creating s potentially damaging situation for him. “We must not ignore issues of boundaries and privacy,” he emphasised.
Tania Mehanna, from Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation stressed that journalists now need to take on more responsibility rather than creating another form of anarchy themselves. “We have to question images and information which everyone is posting so freely especially as there are people who have a vested interest in diverting attention into new movements.”
Meanwhile the discourse became more prickly as some speakers showed their annoyance at certain statements, ” Us journalists did not need the EU to learn about freedom of expression,” said Khaled Q.Y. Bashir from Palestine. “After all, even in the West, whoever owns the media calls the tune.”
But it was the Egyptian broadcast journalist from Nile International Satellite TV, Mona Sewilam who presented us with the most impassioned speech of all. Speaking with emotion, she described how protests, shootings and killings took place in front of her workplace every day. In some of the newspapers, black columns represented the opinion columns of journalists who refused to write in protest against censorship.
“Despite the uprisings, we have unconfirmed reports that the press is funded by the military. You have to be a ‘friend’ of the military so it is no different to when we had Mubarak. Under Mubarak, there was no political analysis but simply us journalists reporting his visits to foreign countries, walking down the red carpet and shaking hands with people like President Obama. But it was not just us who did this – we had the international media travelling with us on the same plane doing the same thing, not questioning anything. ”
Having researched propaganda techniques, Ms Sewilam spoke of how frustrating it is for her to watch Egyptian TV which is replete with bias. She demonstrated how she had analysed a three minute coverage of the Maspero massacre, and the type of language which was used, such as “we” and “the others”, the way the images were manipulated, the sanitation of the language, as well as the misleading statements.
“It is a form of grey propaganda which is trying to lure people into the streets,” she said.
Then there is the culture of violence against women in the Egyptian judiciary, shown in a cartoon which depicts the idea of a woman judge as a joke with sexual connotations.
“An independent monitoring mechanism of the press is required in Egypt,” she concluded.
As the second and final session concluded, remarks from the floor kept bringing the subject back to the way the West suddenly woke up one day and discovered that in Tunisia and in Libya they had been dealing with despots. What guarantees does the Arab world have that the West is now not dealing with the new regimes out of self-interest yet again, journalists demanded.
Patrick Le Hyaric, a French MEP from the Delegation for the Mediterranean, gained everyone’s respect by agreeing with this viewpoint, while pointing out that he forms part of the opposition within the European Parliament on this issue. ” For too long, we had a total ban on discussing certain subjects and we took too long to move forward on certain resolutions. I know the great risks which journalists took to enter Libya and now Syria. As for Tunisia, many journalists were complicit by allowing themselves to be treated to press junkets…how can you criticise the lack of civil liberties when you have had all your expenses paid for by the government?”
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