Monday, February 7, 2011

Notes on Egypt, Al Jazeera and the Digital Divide

The current situation in Egypt is indeed provoking many discussions about the role of media in the coverage, and some could argue the ignition of its events, which began on the 25 January 2011. The protests, which are held all around Egypt, but mainly focusing on Tahrir Square (translates to Liberation Square) are creating a new school of political and social contestation; what is being witnessed now is challenging the traditional uprising module, and is shifting the event from its national territory to a global scale.The current events in Egypt are labeled differently depending on the language, and the geography. For example, here in London Western scholars are hesitant to call it a revolution as in yet. On the other hand, Al Jazeera Arabic channel uses the words Thawra & Intifada (revolution & uprising) generously when describing the scene in Cairo and other cities, which resonates well with Arab audiences who do not find the use of such labels problematic. Being an Arab myself, I find no problem using both words in the right contexts, with the simple logic that the situation in Egypt escalated when the young Egyptians revolted against the current regime and its president. I also don’t mind using the word uprising ( Intifada) although this word in particular is very nostalgic of the Palestinian one, and I sometimes find that using it plays a strong role in establishing anti-apartheid, anti-Zionism and anti-occupation sentiments with Arab viewers and readers of current news. For the sake of the argument however, I will continue to use the word ‘uprising’ in this post.
The reason that I argue that this Egyptian uprising is creating a new school, is because of the interesting intertwined role the media is playing in covering the events as they unfold. There is a circulating discourse that this revolution is a social-media revolution, and it is happening thanks to programmes like Twitter, and Facebook. From a critical point of view, this labelling could undermine the reality of the actual events that are happening for 14 days now on the grounds of the country, bringing together all Egyptians regardless of how connected they are. The reality of the digital divide in this day should not escape us when we attempt to acknowledge what is happening now in Egypt. There is no doubt that social media, and the World Wide Web have contributed and continue to heavily in the propagation and dissemination of information, and are also crucial in communicating with protesters on the ground. Many of the videos and information that we are receiving now are being circulated through social media, and are eventually being used as trusted source of information on mainstream media. However, not all of the 8 million protesters on the 28th of January were twitter and facebook users, those were people that had to protests for the same reasons the ‘connected’ protesters had when they went out on the streets. And when all connections were cut, and the internet was blocked in Egypt, the protests went on, that moment of disconnection did not affect its velocity, but rather affected how we received our information.
It is important to question the role of media in this context, without undermining the role of new and small media in the recent events. This is not a Gladwellian article bashing new media’s role in the contemporary political map.
Another interesting angle to consider is the relationship between traditional and new media. This interesting shift back and forth between what Al Jazeera has to say, and what activists are tweeting and posting online, created unprecedented ways of witnessing. The distance and the physical disconnection are possibly not relevant, as many consider themselves participants by actively tweeting, re-tweeting and watching live-streaming from Tahrir square. Al Jazeera recognises this shift in coverage, and utilizes this by setting up a portal for all activists and protesters to post videos, images and news to be used later in the reports aired on the news channel. Also, considering the recent closure of Al Jazeera offices in Cairo, and the arrest of its journalists by the Egyptian governments, the channel is now relying on what the young protesters on twitter and facebook are saying, which in itself challenges traditional journalism. During the live coverage a couple of days ago, one of the news anchors on Al Jazeera undermined the efforts by the Egyptian government to shut down Al Jazeera offices in Cairo and interrupt its live coverage, because as she stated “every Egyptian is a journalist in the making” and this is a “new revolution that cannot be stopped.” These are strong statements from Al Jazeera, which is now gaining momentum for its extensive coverage of events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt and is being considered one of the integral parts of the Egyptian uprising.
While most Western channels used celebrity journalists to cover the events, such as ABC’s Amanpour who was granted an exclusive interview with Mubarak, and CNN’s Cooper who is covering events live from Tahrir square, Al-Jazeera is still pacing ahead with the generous time slots offered to protesters, activists, Egyptian commentators and experts in Arab affairs. This reflects the strength of the coverage that needs no stars to validate it.
There is no doubt that as the events unfold in Egypt, Al Jazeera continues to challenge not only other news channels, but also new media with their coverage. It would be very interesting to see how these recent events could possibly change or alter the dynamics of journalism in Qatar itself, now that universities in Qatar’s Education city are calling for amendments in the press laws. It would only be fair, for the country that brought to us, what is arguably the most controversial of global news channels, to support press freedom in its own territory.