WASHINGTON— Has the Arab media helped foster political pluralism or has it further divided societies along political and sectarian lines since the Arab Spring? Experts say while the Arab media played a key role in the ouster of several authoritarian governments, in countries since then, media outlets have taken political sides leading to political and sectarian polarization.
Mohamed Elmasry, a professor of journalism and mass communications at the American University in Cairo says while the media played a key role in Egypt promoting democracy in the early days of the Arab Spring -- that changed dramatically after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi last July.
“Since July 3, the Egyptian media have covered current events in a hysterical manner, and the media narrative is almost completely one-sided. There are palpable narratives of military adulation and hyper nationalism, and forces against the military coup are portrayed as treasonous, treacherous, and terrorist,” said Elmasry
Media outlets exploded in Libya in the wake of the revolution that ousted longtime-dictator Moammar Gadhafi but Aly Abuzaakouk, a leading pro-democracy Libyan activist, based in Benghazi, says since then the media has not always played a constructive role.
“While there are some media outlets that proved to be professional and inclusive, there are others who are focused on mobilizing their respective audience to support tribalism and regionalism,” he said.
And journalists are increasingly in danger in Libya. Reporters Without Borders recently warned against mounting violence against journalists there and urged authorities to do more to “improve the environment in which the country’s journalists work.”
The impact of social media
Social media has transformed the Arab media world but whether it has hurt or helped Arab societies is an open question.
Sahar Khamis, a professor at the University of Maryland, says initially social media empowered many ordinary citizens.
“Al Jazeera disseminated this type of media content by asking citizens to send their videos online; this citizen journalism encouraged undecided citizens to come out and participate,” she said.
But Khamis says since then, social media outlets have been used as pawns in a larger political struggle.
“When people have a shared goal like ousting dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, social media became a tool for unifying people, but if people are divided and fragmented like Egyptians after ousting President Mohamed Morsi, then social media becomes a tool for polarization, widening the gap between political rivals,” Khamis said.
Sara El-Khalili, a journalism lecturer at the American University in Cairo says the Egyptian military has been especially effective using social media to promote its agenda.
“Realizing the need to speak the same language of Egyptian youth, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces created an official Facebook page to communicate with the people,” she said.
Sahar Khamis also says governments and other state actors are getting better at using social media as a tool for repression.
“Some Arab regimes were able to hack political activists’ websites. The Syrian Electronic Army was able to trace the electronic addresses of different activists and blocked them.
In Libya security forces traced an activist who used his home computer as a broadcasting station and shot him to death,” she said.
The recent court case in Egypt against five Al Jazeera journalists accused of engaging with a terrorist organization and disseminating false information says Khamis is a real setback to the sort of pluralism that social media tried to promote.
“The message now is clear; if you are not telling the pro-Egyptian government narrative, you run harsh consequences. This is a form of media intimidation because it means that any attempt to balance the story by including the Muslim Brotherhood narrative means running the risk of being stigmatized as communicating with a banned terrorist organization,” she said.
Tunisia breaks the cycle
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has taken a different path. Oussama Romdhani, a former minister of communications in Tunisia says because of strong civil society protections like independent media unions and a regulatory body that protects media workers, Tunisia’s media has managed to emerge as a major force for promoting pluralism in a post-Arab Spring society.
“Radio and television stations, including public-owned institutions, have become really- pluralistic forums. By allowing the expression of vying views and by providing unfettered access to political events, public and private media have been able to promote democratic pluralism,” he said.
Romdhani says Tunisia’s media played a constructive role in educating the public about contentious political issues, but he warns that continuing civil strife has led to a tendency among some media outlets to make political activism their first priority at the expense of balance.
“Whether motivated by business interests or political/ideological agendas, such media factionalism can increase confrontation instead of pluralistic debates. It can even endanger the unity of already-divided Arab societies.” Romdhani said.
The way forward
Mohamed Elmasry says the Arab media is in need of a comprehensive overhaul.
“I think that journalism education, first and foremost, needs to be restructured. Currently, the quality of journalism education in the Arab world is lacking, and the quality of education is especially problematic in Egypt. Journalists are in need of much more training on the principles of journalism, and how to write news,” he said.
He also recommends establishing an independent body of scholars and professional journalists to monitor the performance of the press, establish guidelines, and provide constant feedback to journalists and news organizations.
“I think giving news organizations the educational tools to act professionally, and holding news organizations to a higher standard of professionalism, will go a long way towards ensuring pluralism,” said Elmasry.