Digital Revolution : The battle for Arab freedom

IN Digital Media | 02/04/2012
As the Arab world continues to transform, millions of Arabs are going online to socialize, discuss, protest and spread news about social and political issues.
The CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL MEDIA ASSISTANCE explores a new chapter of digital media in the Arab world, one year after the revolutions. A report.
The Arab region is experiencing a profound media shift. The year following the start of the Arab revolutions-in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and violent uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain- were 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. This report describes and analyzes the enabling of tens of millions of individuals-as well as established news outlets-to attract  wide global followings with Facebook and Twitter updates and YouTube videos about rapidly changing events. The widely diverse and pluralistic online communities in the Arab world are creating and sharing content, calling into question the future of the many state- owned or self-censored media that provide less in the way of engagement that Arab audiences have come to expect.

To read the #Egypt and #Jan25 Twitter feeds among many others, could easily give the reader a slight case of déjà-vu: The one-year commemorations of the start of the Egypt revolution-and the flurry of online activity-recalled the historic start of protests against the military, the Emergency Law, and demands for eradicating corruption,  improving  job opportunities, and inclusion.

"Did we make it?" read the banner headline on the Bikyamasr online news portal on January 25, 2012. "One year ago, Egyptians rose up against torture, corruption and destitution. The cost was substantial, but Mubarak was ousted. Did the system change?" A few clicks away on its Twitter page, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces of Egypt (SCAF) marked the anniversary of the revolution in terse statements that have become its hallmark on Twitter as well as Facebook.

As the world commemorated the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt-and watched closely the developments in Syria, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, which entered their second year since the start of civil unrest-many of the deeply entrenched social and political issues continued to serve  as rallying points, attracting  Arabs by the millions to socialize, protest, and share news  and information in rapid-fire exchanges that are irrevocably  changing the nature of online engagement and media in the region.

The Arab revolutions and uprisings that began in late 2010 and continue are arguably among the most chronicled civil movements in the history of the Internet. In addition to content that originates online, there are scores of documentary films and books about the revolutions, magazine and journal articles plus academic confabs, Arab blogger conventions, legal and regulatory reform efforts. Even before the spread of populist revolts that have gripped the region, Arabs with digital access were taking part in a social media revolution that enabled unprecedented freedom of expression. Over the previous decade of Internet access, activists, writers, and lay citizens built capacities and networks that ultimately played a role in enabling Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Bahrainis, and Syrians and others to mobilize and voice demands for change.

To be sure, 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 it 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.

Precise figures are hard to obtain, but according to the Arab Knowledge Report published by United Nations Development Programme and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, the number of Arabic speakers using the Internet stood at 60 million as of late 2009.  Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, author of a memoir, Revolution 2.0, said in late 2010 that 100 million Arab Internet users are expected by 2015. Based on the increasing number of Facebook users alone in the region, it appears that 100 million could be met sooner. The number has already been surpassed if one considers the estimates of the International Telecommunication Union; it reports about 29 Internet users for every 100 people in the Arab region, bringing the number to about 104 million users among a regional population of 358 million. Seventy percent of those using Facebook in the Arab region are between the ages of 15 and 29, according to the Arab Social Media Report.  Youth (those under age 25) are estimated to make up more than 50 percent of the populations of Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Oman and between 37 and 47 percent in the rest of the region.

While the numbers of Arabs online represent a minority, the growing impact of the Arab cyberspace is serving as a counterweight, tipping the scales long dominated by state-owned media and propaganda. Communities with tens of millions of online contributors sharing their own selections of news, information, and opinions on a global scale are emerging. Consider the Twitter feeds of some Arab micro-bloggers, such as Ghonim, who has 362,701 Twitter followers and 6,484 tweets to his name, and Sultan Al Qassemi, a self-described commentator on Arab affairs, with nearly 104,791 followers and 28,308 tweets as of March 2012. Nabeel Rajab, chairman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has nearly 124,572 Twitter followers and has sent 17,393 tweets. These Arab micro-bloggers have followings that exceed the circulation figures of some Arab national newspapers. Media outlets, including newspapers and satellite networks, are also adopting multi-platform strategies to promote stories and engage with audiences and citizen journalists.

As the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions  entered their second year, along with  an increasingly violent uprising in Syria, the battle for the Arab cyberspace continued to mature, and bloggers, regime critics, opposition activists,  and journalists continued to confront the risks of arrest or other severe repercussions. Meanwhile, demands for greater freedom of expression and media independence continued to be a rallying point in Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, and beyond.

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