‘Arab Spring:’ Live by the Media, Die by the Media
It is still unclear and appearing increasingly unlikely that the popular Arab uprisings of last spring will amount to any significant progress towards the creation of free and open societies. The elementary mistake that so many seem to make is that ‘elections equal democracy,’ but, as Natan Sharansky writes in his famed book The Case for Democracy, “elections are not the true test of democracy, and are never the beginning of the democratic process.” What value is an election with one choice on the ballot, or many choices but a terrorized electorate, alternatively, less terror, more choices but completely controlled access to information?
He writes, what is first necessary before free elections can be held, is “free press, the rule of law, independent courts and political parties.” Of these preconditions, free media is the first and most important in securing a smooth transition to democracy, as its purpose is to serve as the tool by which all the others are guaranteed.
As has been well documented, the organization and coordination of the various groups of revolutionaries throughout the Arab world was largely made possible as a result of the relatively recent democratization of information. It was applied through various social media platforms such as Facebook and twitter. Simply put, whereas in the past, media tools were only available to a select few, today everybody has access to them.
It follows, that in seeking to ascertain the direction in which the ‘Arab Spring’ is headed, and the likelihood of the emergence of true democratic societies in the three countries that have implemented regime change, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the ‘state of the media’ should serve as a sound barometer. In each, the situation is unique.
Dr. Adel Iskandar, of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, considered an expert on Arab media (he is also a man with whom I strongly disagree on a number of issues) told me that in all three countries, “the government’s effectiveness in controlling information has decreased, and there is a popularity of messages that are of a dissident nature.”
Tunisia has high literacy rates, and about 30% of the populace has access to the internet. There are no restricted websites, and 20-30 independent newspapers have been launched within the past 6 to 8 months. Two of the newspapers are owned by the new government. Iskandar scores the freedom of information level at 90% (Ten points above his score for the United States.) Based on this evaluation it is fair to say that the fledgling democracy is likely to thrive.
In Egypt, the State media formerly controlled by ousted President Hosni Mubarak is now in the hands of the Supreme Military Council. Infamously in recent days the TV network blatantly attempted to cover up a massacre of Coptic Christians perpetrated by the controlling military. Iskandar says that this was an “act of suicide” for the station and will result in “continued loss of credibility.” A tug of war persists between the Interim Government and the Military, the outcome of which remains to be seen. Some 25% of the populace has internet access and over 5 million people have Joined Facebook in the last year. The future of Egyptian democracy remains a tossup, leaning slightly in favor of openness with a current 60% freedom of information score.
The situation in Libya is far less clear as there is little media coming out of the country in general. Whilst infrastructure for new TV networks has sprouted, the National Transitional Council has taken control of state media and there is no criticism of the current government. There are a number of clandestine news networks that have sprung up, as well as some newspapers, internet access is intermittent and uncertain. Iskandar puts Libya’s freedom of information score at 40%.
The real question however, is how all this will impact the Arab-Western relations. In a general sense there is an assumption that if democracy takes hold in Arab countries, peace will flourish. Sharansky strongly makes the case for this in his book, saying “democracies don’t go to war with one another.” Freedom of information in the Arab world, with the notable exception of Lebanon, on whatever level, is a new phenomenon, the impact of which remains to be seen.
There have been however a number of strong indicators that whereas rigorous internal discourse in the Arab media may allow for more critical public debate, there are other influencing forces that do not bode well for the West.
Al Jazeera has long been considered an independent instrument to measure the pulse on the Arab street, and although taking controversial positions on a number of internal Arab issues, it is almost uniformly anti-Western. Iskandar confirms that “if Al Jazeera were to change its coverage, it would lose its following.” A former employee tells me that from Washington DC based program editors, there is “very much a feeling of ‘let’s criticize what the US is doing now,’ and they often use the line ‘let’s hold their (American policy makers) feet to the fire.'”
The US government launched an Arabic media channel called Al Hurra, which according to a recent Zogby poll has captured less than 1% of the market.
The above mentioned institutionalized massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt and the pronounced lack of objection from the general populace serve as a strong indication that Islamist religious prejudices are by no means diminished. This is also indicated by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the election of a ‘moderate Islamist’ party in Tunisia.
In truth, even if rigorous internal debate is fostered, a society that doesn’t accept the fundamental humanistic principle that all men are created equal, regardless of race religion or creed has not yet earned the title ‘democracy.’