During the Arab Spring, one of the biggest revolutionary players proved to be the media – demonstrating an impressive ability to involve a new generation, adapt to new technology and shape a new world. Rana F. Sweis, journalist and media researcher, who lived the Arab Spring first hand, and who continues to ride the waves in its aftermath, participated in the Aspen Mediterranean Initiative – Media, business and societies: a platform for change, held in Rome on April 15-16, 2012. Sweis is a freelance journalist for the New York Times (Global Edition) and the lead researcher in Jordan for the Open Society Institute – sponsored Mapping Digital Media study. We spoke about the changing role of the media in the ever-changing Arab region.
During the Arab Spring, the role of the media evolved greatly. Could you share your experience with us and describe the fundamental challenges faced today by journalists in the Arab world?
First of all, I want to talk in general about the role of media during the Arab Spring. The media evolved in regards to the use of social media leading up to the Arab Spring and during the Arab Spring. Depending on the country in the region – the Arab world is not a monolithic entity – traditional and national media still have a long way to progress.
In Egypt you had a fluctuation in regards to freedom of the press after the Arab Spring. Those who used to broadcast on the internet only now have their own TV shows but you also had periods when the military-led government (SCAF) began to use censorship as a tool to crackdown on descent.
Moreover, after the fall of the regime in Libya there was an explosion in the number of newspapers, TV channels and radio channels but there was also a clear lack of media training on the fundamentals of journalism – showing both sides, writing a news story – due to many reasons including oppression. This was the case in Iraq as well right after the occupation. If there is no proper training you end up with ethnic and party-led newspapers that have agendas or can report news based on rumors or neglecting to show the other side.
Journalists today face two main challenges – they continue to struggle against government censorship and oppressive laws that punish them instead of protecting them. The other is self-censorship and lack of training.
Fear seems to have diminished during the revolutions. Where do Arab reporters stand today in their quest for true freedom of the press?
I do believe a barrier of fear has been lifted after the Arab Spring. In a survey conducted in Jordan, the number of journalists who admitted to self-censorship prior to the Arab Spring was 95%, and that went down 10 percentage points after the Arab Spring – but it is still a very high percentage. Self-censorship is a vital concept to understand when it comes to journalists in our region. It means that journalists don’t cover certain issues whether it is about their government, military or about taboo social issues. We are talking about the fundamental question of what is the role of the media if it cannot shed light on issues that impact society or ask difficult questions to those in power?
Some journalists in the region are still struggling with their role in society. We need to move beyond this in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In countries like Syria, journalists are in danger. Their lives are at risk. As you know some have lost their lives, others were beaten up. Depending on events and the path of democracy and reform in the region, the possibilities of having a vibrant and free press may become a reality. It may take time but it can happen. If the path in the future takes a more conservative or oppressive path then we will go back to square one, I’m afraid. But I see reporters, in general, and even young people, expressing themselves more, debates are taking place. This is all healthy for any society.
Many journalists have celebrated the great potential of the internet in contemporary news gathering and sharing. How do you think this potential will play out in the future, also in respect to traditional news outlets?
Sharing (recommending, retweeting, posting, emailing) news articles and updates has been something very positive for the press and journalists. I think this will expand even more in the future and the opportunities to share news will become endless. So we are talking about reaching people, debating, discussing. An article isn’t something we only read once. It becomes part of the day. We discuss, retweet it, explore it, verify it, disagree and agree, blog about it. This is something great.
Traditional media outlets simply have to move forward with the times and the process of digitization. Some outlets like the New York Times are doing a great job but others as well. I see traditional newspapers on ipad and iphones, on Twitter and on Facebook and using technology as a way to keep them surviving, investing in the website, using multi-media. All this is great but those print outlets that didn’t jump on the bandwagon surely have been left out and some even closed down. At the end of the day we also have to remember, we can’t have digitization without content. You will always need good writers. You will always need people to go find the story, to listen to the people, to cover the story in the traditional way
Often bloggers and citizen journalists are not professional journalists. Could you explain how this has helped and hurt media coverage during the Arab revolutions?
Bloggers and social media activists played and continue to play an important role in the revolutions. Professional journalists have another important role. I don’t look at them as one or the same. Bloggers and social media activists had a great impact when it came to reporting on atrocities, events, detentions in timely tweets or Facebook messages. Also look at Syria. Journalists are banned. These activists are risking their lives to document atrocities or take photos. They also posted videos from the scene. This all helped the revolutions. But journalists have a different role. They report the news. They interview both sides. They have to verify information. They analyze. There’s a process and there are editors as well. It’s about news gathering, verifying information, spending time researching and interviewing both sides. Both social media activists and journalists had a role, and continue to have a role to play in the Arab Spring, which includes informing the public.
Investigative reporting has become more brave and there is some great work being done in many countries across the region. I attended the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists at the end of last year (after the Arab Spring had begun). Journalists from countries that witnessed revolutions – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen – expressed more optimism in their capacity to investigate what was once forbidden. For example, Egyptian journalists revealed results of the first Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists cross-border investigation that tracked the wealth of Egyptian oil and gas tycoon Hussein Salem, the right hand of former President Hosni Mubarak. This was unheard of prior to the Arab Spring but also this is the work of professional journalists and it took months of painstaking fact-checking, research and investigations to make sure every single thing they write is accurate and correct.
I think good journalists feel they have a responsibility and it’s a very heavy responsibility to be accurate. The chaos of the internet is not really the issue. Look at the tweets, the retweets, the information being shared. At the end of the day a lot of what is being shared on social media are links to news articles coming from traditional media outlets from across the world. The internet is a tool that has helped journalists also in ways we can only begin to assess.
You have mentioned that you believe there is new space for investigative journalism in the Middle East.
In your opinion, how will news consumers who are used to short “tweet” style information respond to longer-format investigations?
I see Twitter as a platform for sharing information. What will be tweeted about is a link to an article or long-format investigations. The tweets will be quotes from the investigation. But you can’t use Twitter to write an investigation. So, it’s a tool to share your work as an investigative journalist. What I have seen though is applications (Apps) that gather all these long investigations and feature stories to make it easier for the reader to find these reports all in one place from all sorts of media outlets and magazines. One of those Apps for example is Long Form (http://longform.org/). I think this is so great. It gives investigative journalists a platform for their work to be discussed and examined.
Please outline three challenges (and possible solutions) to be addressed regarding the future of news in the Arab world.
1) Training of journalists in the region. If proper training (building institutions for training or reform the journalism university curricula to reflect digitization and new realities on the ground in terms of political changes) can lead to a professional and more free press that will eventually play a vital role in shaping society and government.
2) Reform in media laws. If laws are examined and rewritten to protect journalists instead of punishing them, it will lead to more freedom of expression and speech and access to information. This will be something that is very much needed and is absent from the press in the region.
3) Good quality Arabic content on the web. This remains a problem in the internet world. Good Arabic content is not always available and the more resources and investment that is made in that regards, the more journalists can find useful information on the web in their language.