In light of some of the very interesting news coming out of Tunisia and Egypt, and now apparently unrest in Yemen, I thought this might be a good time to repost a piece I wrote when Media Bullseye was just starting out. This post originally ran on December 20, 2007. Bloggers are still risking much in Egypt, and the question: are blogs the only independent media in the Arab world? clearly is still a valid one.
In celebration of 75 years of service, the BBC is hosting a debate series entitled “[Free to Speak](http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/freetospeak/).” The series includes questions on topics ranging from the continued role of public broadcasting to the legitimacy of certain restrictions on free speech.
A debate on whether new media is the only truly independent media in the Arab world was held in [Cairo](http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1939_fts_events/page9.shtml) as part of this series. The full debate is worth listening to for anyone interested in new media, as the examples discussed by the panel certainly serve to heighten the importance of independent voices in areas where state-owned media exist.
The questions the debate raises sound familiar to anyone working in new media: Are bloggers journalists? Is editorial control really a guarantee of quality reporting? What responsibilities do bloggers have to their audiences?
However, the examples provided during the course of the debate were more concrete than contemplative. Two policemen were jailed in Egypt after video surfaced on the Internet, showing them torturing a man in their custody. After the video of the police officers aired, YouTube [suspended](http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/11/28/egypt-youtube-disables-activists-account/) the account of the submitter, citing viewer complaints about the content of the video. In another case, a blogger was jailed in February for making allegedly seditious comments on his blog.
Moderator Robin Lustig of the BBC posed the question to the panel: “Is new media the only truly independent media in the Arab world today?” and the debate between four panelists–two arguing in favor, two opposed–provided a great deal of insight into how both new media and traditional media are viewed in the Arab world. At one point, an audience member objected to using the term “new media” to describe just bloggers; she works for an online publication with “a traditional editorial framework,” and took strong exception to the implication that “new media” necessarily means blogging. This interpretation of new media including general websites was a view held by one of the panelists as well, who used that interpretation to challenge the veracity of bloggers. By lumping Jihadist websites, pornography, and gambling sites into his description of new media, the impression was left that blogs were no different than these types of web presences.
The blogger on the panel, Hossam El Hamalawy, stated that he felt bloggers are accountable to readers in a manner that is more efficient than the mainstream media; this is an interesting comment given that El Hamalawy is also a journalist. Rabab El Mahdi, a political scientist who was also on the panel speaking in favor of the question, made the point that blogs provide for a multiplicity of voices that are not present in traditional Arab media–as a woman, she doesn’t feel represented. Those speaking in favor of the question made the interesting observation that bloggers are “writing for an interactive audience, not a paycheck”–and therefore can be deemed more reliable.
Those who spoke in opposition to the debate question were far less convincing. In fact, both seemed to go out of their way to ensure that the audience knew they felt bloggers had a place in reporting, but just needed more editorial guidance and controls. Neither seemed aware of the contradiction that position posed: more editorial guidance and controls would in effect turn blogs into the same mouthpieces that the state-run media is.
After listening to the debate, it seems as though Egypt’s bloggers are becoming an essential element to the delivery of news in the Arab world. By providing a voice that exposes elements that the traditional media keep hidden, they are providing a valuable service to the public, and they are doing so oftentimes with the very real risk to their personal safety.