Death knell for control of social media in the Middle East

LONDON — The future looks grim for state-run media in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the social and political upheaval that have rocked the areas.

The ability of governments to control the information its citizens receive has been undone by the profusion of satellite TV channels, as well as the proliferation of social media networks.

“There is no future for Arab state media,” said Faisal Abbas, a London-based blogger for the Huffington Post.

The public has long doubted the credibility of such state-run organs as Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper, Abbas said, noting that the government’s poorly disguised efforts to interfere with editorial content destroyed the paper’s ability to sway public opinion.

On the other hand, a single Facebook page in support of Khalid Said, the Egyptian blogger who died in police custody last June, was enough to inspire the movement that eventually brought down the Mubarak regime.

The same was true in Tunisia, where a video showing Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire to express his frustration with life in that country became viral on YouTube and was viewed all across the Arab world.

“(Social media) is not the message,” added Dina Matar, a lecturer in Arab media and political communication at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. “It is a tool, which has given protesters the ability to frame the narrative, but there are other factors. The uprisings have now shifted from cyber-politics to street politics, where the traditional media of rallies, graffiti and leaflets have been used. The people, and not just journalists, have created the angle on the stories.”

Meanwhile, efforts by some Arab regimes to use Facebook and Twitter for their own purposes have failed miserably.

Even more powerful, blogger Abbas said, are satellite news channels like al-Jazeera, with its audience of 40 million Arab viewers every day.

“I subscribe wholeheartedly to the view that these revolutions were powered by information,” said al-Jazeera’s Cairo correspondent Ayman Moyheldin. “I don’t support the notion that it was purely Facebook or Twitter, but it was a mixture of media, and the Internet was crucial.”

Moyheldin said he believes state-run media will eventually fail. “If competition doesn’t take out state-owned newspapers and channels, dictators will dismantle them themselves, because they no longer serve any use,” he said.

“State television and newspapers in the Arab world have been completely discredited,” agreed Hugh Miles, a journalist and the author of “Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World.” “They’ve been trailing behind for years and now need to be competitive with funding and creating a political environment that promotes freedom of speech,” he said.

“Editorial integrity must be proven, not promised,” Abbas argued. “Let everybody have their say, and the best voice will win.”

• Holman is a staff member of The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict

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