Blogging and social networking dominate conference on Arab media
A ONE-day conference on new Arab media held in the Brunei Gallery of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) last week gave the audience the opportunity of hearing from some of the leading bloggers in the Arab world in person.
They included the Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas, who blogs at Misr Digital; Ali Abdulemam, described by the New York Times as Bahrain’s “most notorious blogger”, and Tunisian investigative journalist and human rights campaigner Olfa Jami.
There were two Jordanian bloggers: Naseem Tarawneh, author of the “Black Iris” blog, and Mariam Abu Adas who started her “Driven by Curiosity” blog in 2004 when she was living in Saudi Arabia. Tarawneh was a co-founder of the Jordanian citizen media site 7iber.com which Abu Adas now runs.
Titled “Arab Media Today: new audiences and new technologies”, the conference was organized by the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) at SOAS. It was supported by the Media Outreach Center of the U.S. Embassy in London and the MBI Foundation of Jeddah-based businessman and philanthropist Mohamed Bin Issa Al-Jaber.
LMEI acting Director Sarah Stewart noted that this was the third in a series of LMEI conferences on the Arab media. The first was on pan-Arab media and the Western world, and the second on what drives the Arab media, and with what consequences. “I think it’s fair to say that in contrast to the previous two conferences, this (conference) is rather uncharted territory,” she remarked.
The Arab media revolution began in the early 1990s with the birth of pan-Arab satellite TV, which had a profound impact in breaking down barriers, challenging taboos and introducing rolling 24-hour news. Today there are more than 500 Arab satellite TV channels.
The Internet, however, was slow to take off in the Arab world, but is rapidly making up for lost time. According to Internet World Stats, between 2000 and 2008, the number of Internet users in the Middle East (including Iran and Israel, but excluding Egypt and North Africa) grew by 1,296.2 percent, the biggest percentage increase in any region of the world. The number of Internet users soared from 3.28 million to 45.86 million.
Internet penetration is now 23.3 per cent of the population in the Middle East, almost matching the world average of 23.6 per cent, but far behind the figure in North America (73.1 per cent) or Europe (48.5 per cent).
Arab Internet penetration is the highest in the UAE at 48.9 percent, and lowest in Iraq at 1 per cent. The Arab countries with the largest number of users are Egypt with 10.53 million and Saudi Arabia (6.38 million).
There are reckoned to be 490,000 Arab blogs, with 160,000 of them in Egypt alone. Blogs are just one element in the mix of new media, which includes websites, discussion forums, video and picture sharing sites, and social networking sites. There are new developments coming up all the time, including the recent launch by Facebook of an Arabic version.
A Syrian expert on new media and technologies Anas Tawileh – Vice President for engineering at Meedan, noted, “The Internet came late to the Arab world and it took some time for people to appreciate this new communication media and to start to use it. But once they found what the Internet has to offer, the growth was phenomenal.”
Tawileh gave examples of ways in which Web 2.0 – the term for the various forms of online interactive media – is now being manifested in the Arab area. “Arab Internet users want to be heard”, he said, adding “the new media is the perfect opportunity to voice their concerns, express themselves and to a certain degree, feel that they are being heard by others. On Facebook there are 2.5 million Arab users.”
There are constant launches of new Arabic services intended as equivalents to social media engines such as YouTube, Twitter and Flickr. Tawileh remarked that 56 per cent of Saudis use discussion forums, and asserted that discussion forums play a particularly prominent role in the new media in Arab countries. Furthermore, mobile phones facilitate the spread of new media, and in the third quarter of 2008 there were 188.2 million of them in Arab countries. Will Ward, managing editor of the online journal “Arab Media & Society” published by the American University in Cairo, outlined the vital contribution of social media, particularly Facebook, in getting out news during the Gaza war. This outlet was especially important in the face of the Israel-induced media blackout.
Marc Lynch, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, chaired the session on the Arab blogosphere. He has been writing the widely-read “Abu Aardvark” blog since 2002.
“By virtue of being both a blogger and an academic I’ve managed to see this from both sides of the equation,” he said. Political bloggers have developed a certain sense of shared identity, purpose and vision, but Lynch believes it is far more complex than that. “Blogging as blogging is not particularly noteworthy. It’s a means to something and what’s interesting is that ‘something’, the ability of people to find ways to engage in particular ways of public activism and public life in the Arab world in arenas which are quite hostile traditionally to such participation and engagement.
“Blogging and Facebook and so many other things have opened up avenues for political participation in various forms, for personal participation, for the creation and construction of new identifies, and for the ability of people to form new relationships which in the past wouldn’t have been possible,” he asserted.
In the session on the blogosphere, bloggers gave compelling accounts of their blogging experiences, including skirmishes with the authorities. Some governments in the Arab world have been keen to try and control cyberspace by blocking certain sites and through harassing and even imprisoning bloggers.
In Egypt, for instance, bloggers have played a role in political activism and in helping to organize demonstrations. Wael Abbas has circulated videos on his blog showing torture at police stations, electoral fraud and the brutality of security forces against demonstrators.
Naseem Tawarneh described Jordan as “the tranquil blogosphere”, but there have been government interventions which in one case led to the closure of the Jordan Planet blog aggregator site two years ago. Arab blogs have also been instrumental in contributing to good causes. For example, Tawarneh spoke of how the 7iber.com site was able to mobilize around 100 young people to sort and organize up to 60 tons of food and clothing donated via Aramex to the people of Gaza, during the recent Israeli onslaught.
It might be assumed that the dramatic growth in blogging in the Arab world would have produced a pan-Arab blogosphere. But in practice each Arab country tends to have its own national blogosphere with its own character and concerns. There are national blog aggregator sites with titles such as Syria Planet, or Tunisie.blogs, and Saudi Arabia’s blogosphere isn’t any different. – SG