3 May 2008

Why Facebook may be their Fourth Estate

By Juliette Harkin

Can the fast-paced change in the Arab media help to nurture democracy? At a recent United Nations Association meeting in Norwich, we discussed how it was not realistic to expect the media to deliver democracy. But, despite the difficult times in the region, it is important to recognise the advancements within the Arab media landscape over past decades and the positive role this can play.

The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow; 27 years in power and still clinging on. His government remains in the spotlight for a continued crackdown on journalists, bloggers and activists.

Nothing seems to irk Arab governments more than the perceived or real criticisms levied on them by the private and commercial media, operating outside of direct state control.

Government attempts to control and interfere in the media are nothing new. We have seen it between the BBC and the British government over the 'sexing-up' of the dossier for the Iraqi war.

But in the Arab world the establishment, licensing and operations of Arab broadcast and print media have traditionally been controlled by the government through their ministries of information. This has rendered the media as nothing more than a propaganda machine to serve those in power. The result has been a growing demand for alternative sources of information.

Some of the UK and other mainstream media seem to feel there can be no quality Arab media. But the Arab media scene over the last decades has been a rich one in which media outlets face many of the same challenges as the European media as well as their own particular challenges.

The more well-known Arab satellite channels, led by Al Jazeera, as well as a plethora of information and entertainment channels, have provided people with a flow of information that had been previously unavailable.

The advent of these satellite services changed the media landscape permanently. State broadcasters realised that they could no longer control the flow of information and suppress 'bad news'.

In a climate of reform and democratisation during the 1990s, a vibrant and pluralistic media developed or flourished once more in countries such as Lebanon and Morocco. Independent and private broadcasters and newspapers have been established in Egypt, Syria, Oman, Algeria and Palestine, to name a few. Countries such as Jordan and Qatar have gone so far as to do away with information ministries altogether, although the controls do rest elsewhere.

However, there are red lines that cannot be crossed for the private and commercial operators. A seemingly increasing hardline response to a critical media over the last few years has led some to question whether these gains towards an independent media and free press are actually being reversed in countries such as Egypt.

On the other hand, Arab governments claim the media is not professional and accurate and this is why there have been problems. Arab ministers of information have become so fed-up with what they see as the unprofessional conduct of the Arab satellite channels that they called an emergency summit earlier this year and drew up a charter for regulating the multitude of Arab satellite channels now operating from within and outside the Arab world.

Without doubt, there are rogue players in the world of satellite broadcasting producing ideologically-led content; they are more interested in representing political interests than in journalism.

The Egyptian government is watching the media closely. As journalists and bloggers face prison sentences for the words they have written, the brief flourish of reform that greeted the presidential elections in 2005 has faded away. Now we have Facebook activists and bloggers calling for strikes and leading Egyptian intellectuals, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, urging non-violent protest and action against the worst excesses of the regime.

Is this a sign that gains in the media landscape over the last decade are receding in the face of hardline state control? And/or are new media platforms, for example blogging and social networking sites such as Facebook, becoming the new Fourth Estate in holding governments to account?

The media, traditional or new, cannot compensate for a lack of democratic structures.

One thing is for sure: the gains made over the last decade or so cannot disappear, as 'consumers' who are exposed to plurality, choice and alternative perspectives and information are unlikely to stop demanding more.