By Ashley Beasley
The United States tried to bring democracy to the Middle East and failed, as the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us.This year democracy came to the region on its own terms.
Aided by social media and other digital journalism platforms, autocratic winter turned to Arab Spring spreading calls for democracy and revolution like wildfire across continents. Starting with the oust of Tunisia’s regime earlier this year, the world has witnessed Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain rise against their governments in a massive outcry for change.
“There’s a great hunger in these people to be heard,” said Daniella Peled, editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a non-profit group that strengthens media outlets and teaches journalism to citizens in countries on the verge of crisis and change.
Before the revolutions, vocalizing the need for political reform was oppressed and there was very limited to no political debate in countries like Egypt and Libya, Peled said. The story is similar in other countries.
In Tunisia’s former regime run by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, television and radio stations existed with news style formats mostly used as public relations tools for the ruler and were heavily regulated by the government, said Bechir Blagui, founder and executive director of Free Tunisia, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the democratic movement.
Blagui’s girlfriend is a reporter for “Sabah”, the first privately owned newspaper in Tunisia. He said during the revolution, Sabah’s owner, the son-in-law to former president Ben Ali, fled. The journalists then formed a committee of editors to run the paper and were free to report what they wanted to for the first time.
The result of the former regime’s media blackout has been an explosion of news outlets.
“Tunisians are learning how to do their homework [fast],” Blagui said. As of June 1, the Tunisian ministry gave licenses to 80 new publications, with 480 applications still in review.
This avalanche of independent TV stations, newspapers and radio stations has emerged throughout the budding Arab democracies and many say social media have played an integral part.
Blagui credits social media as one way Tunisia’s revolution was able to succeed.
“[Suddenly] Tunisia had 10 million journalists,” Blagui said and adds anyone with a cell phone could and was reporting on social media sites like Facebook.
Peled gives critical acclaim to the power of bloggers and tweeting in these revolutions. She said it’s the citizens of these countries who are really on the front lines of democracy and putting their own lives in danger.
Facebook and Twitter are largely accredited with aiding the revolution in Egypt, which was said to have been started by Dubai based Google executive Wael Ghonim’s Facebook page that displayed pictures of police and government corruption and brutality in Egypt late last year.
And although there are foreign media outlets like IWPR and Al Jazeera providing citizens in the emerging democratic Middle East a place to contribute their stories, these countries are creating and using their own digital platforms.
Clearly people not only want an audience from their peers, but want to be heard on a world stage, like Tribute FM, Libya’s first English-language online radio station with a worldwide target audience. Two Libyan men started and self-funded the project after returning home from Britain to be a part of the their country’s history in the making.
History is indeed in the making and no one is really sure what the Arab Spring will look like, as it continues to change and form.
“The concern in Tunisia right now is that there are so many outside influences,” Blagui said. He explains his respect for democracies such as France and the U.S. but wants his own country’s democracy to form organically and on its own.
Lawrence Pintak, author of “The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil” and Dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University explains:
“What many Western policymakers, columnists and researchers fail to understand is that Arab journalists are defining their own set of standards and practices.”