Politics, power and the new Arab media

MEDIA technologies have changed the course of history in the Islamic world for centuries. The import of printing presses in the Ottoman Empire spelt doom for the autocracy of the sultans. Nasser electrified the Arab world with his fiery nationalist speeches on Egyptian radio.

By Matein Khalid

Published: Wed 18 Apr 2007, 8:23 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Khoemini’s anti-Shah sermons, smuggled into Pahlavi Iran in cassettes, was a catalyst for the Islamic revolution. The PLO’s Black September staged a succession of terrorist spectaculars, including blowing up hijacked Swissair, BOAC and Pan Am jets parked on a Jordanian desert airfield and the Munich Olympics hostage-taking of Israeli athletes, to highlight the Palestine cause on US prime time TV. Hezbollah’s Al Manar and Saad Hariri’s Future TV are partisan TV channels in the current Lebanese political imbroglio. Lebanese journalists Gibran Tueni, Samir Kassar and Giselle Khoury were outspokenly anti-Syrian, the main reason they are now all dead or maimed.

Ironically, strict Arab censorship of the media is a tribute by unelected governments to its sheer power. Satellite TV has put the spotlight on the planet’s last bloc of dictatorships. Saddam Hussein understood the power of the media all too well by banning unlicensed imports of typewriters and fax machines, even as he showered brown envelopes stuffed with cash and Mercedez Benz sedans to dozens of Arab journalists in Amman, Beirut, Cairo and London. As Abu Uday once claimed, journalists were cheaper than tanks and offered more value for money. The Saudi Arabian royal family owns some of the leading media brands in the Arab world (MBC, Sharq Al Awsat, Al Arabiya). Bloggers in Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain acted as digital electoral watchdogs, freely discussed controversial political and social issues that were anathema to government censors. In the ancient oral traditions of Arabia, the gossip of the cyberspace coffee houses defines the new political culture of the region.

Like the "CNN effect" provided a global audience for America’s high-tech blitzkrieg in Desert Storm, energised the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, forced NATO to intervene in Kosovo and the White House to broker peace in Bosnia, Al Jazeera has had a revolutionary impact on Arab politics and popular culture. Satellite TV has made the turgid, censored state media models of the Arab world irrelevant. After all, 24-hour news channels, You Tube and the viral video revolution, the Internet, social networking sites and cellphone video make the Arab world’s Ministries of Information both anachronistic and laughable. It is impossible to manipulate public opinion in even the most totalitarian and brutal dictatorship in a world where You Tube and netizens swapping video sites exist to expose alternative views of reality, power and human possibility.

Net usage in the Arab world has surged, with 20 million Arabs logging daily on the Internet. While the Arab video sharing sites Ikbis’s 40,000 page views are chump change compared to You Tube’s 100 million daily video clip views, its viral impact on Arab culture empowers millions of Arabs to express opinions, ideas and images denied them by their own government censors or ideological/religious police. It is no coincidence that one of the most popular Arab videos features Saudi Arabian break-dancers, a symbol of my belief that democracy, the free market, the Internet and demographics will determine the future of the Arab world, not just coups, government intervention, revolutionary bombast, arms sprees, state terror and the plots of local and foreign intelligence agencies.

Even the most visceral enemies of the West have embraced its technologies in their quest to win the ideological wars that rage across the Islamic world. Suicide bombers in London and Palestine have posted videos explaining their final act of terror. Al Qaeda has a media production division (al Sahab) whose corporate PR model was discussed at a CEO forum in Davos. The theocrat mullahs of Iran limit broadband connections to limit the Iranian people’s access to streaming video, a policy that only increases the alienation of the population and ensures that the Islamic Republic is roadkill on the Information Highway that has transformed the global economy.

It is, of course, entirely rational for governments to fear the ubiquitous power of millions of Arabs armed with video-capable cell phones that can spread propaganda, expose the wrong deeds of the mighty, record massacres and murder, leverage the power of ridicule and shame, even film crimes against humanity, as a Himalayan mountaineer did when he recorded the deliberate shooting of Tibetan refugees by Chinese border guards, forcing the American ambassador to protest Beijing amid global outrage after the video clip was posted on You Tube.

Of course, Arab new media offers unlimited opportunities to spread propaganda and disinformation or incite sectarian hatreds. The video of Saddam Hussen’s hanging only increased the Shia-Sunni schism in Iraq. Spurious videos of alleged Shia attempts to convert Egyptian Sunnis was crude sectarian propaganda in a nation where a Shia state (the Fatimid empire) last existed a 1000 years ago. Videos of Abu Gharaeib did more to delegitimise George Bush’s war against Baathist Iraq, far more than any of elite Saddam’s Republican Guards divisions or Sunni Triangle insurgent attacks.

The "You Tube effect" will enable the Arab masses to communicate with each other, exchange ideas about politics and values, express their deepest hopes and fears with a freedom that only technology makes possible and even government censors are powerless to restrict. This will be the second media revolution in Arab politics after the Al Jazeera launch a decade ago. Viral video has its own pitfalls because it operates without any editorial control, can incite sectarian violence (Shia Egypt), terror (Londonistan sermons) or even demonise foes via fake images (Iraq).

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

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