Bullets and Bulletins: Media and Politics in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings

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By: Mohamed Zayani
Suzi Mirgani , Editor

New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 248pp (paperback). $35.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9780190491550

Volume: 6 Issue: 1

January 2018

Review by:

Mohamed Lafouairas, PhD

King Fahd High-school of Translation

Tangier, Morocco

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, it was apparent that there has been a soaring conflict of mediums, and each part wanted to strengthen its control over the public sphere, whether it was a space medium or other communication mean which coincided with the spread of the use of internet, and the rising access to social media and digital media that “are extending the exercise of citizenship” (p. 8). And even, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, as “a primary communicative political medium”, could not have sparked too much rage and prompted the collapse of a very despotic regime (Ben Ali ruling era) without the pivotal role of social media and its impact on enhancing the political activism in the Arab World, to the extent that “some labeled the uprisings as Facebook and Twitter revolutions” p49.

The medium is the message—as Marshal McLuhan stressed decades ago, and it is not  too much of an exaggeration to say  that throughout the different chapters of the three parts of the book , each writer was emphasizing that the medium has had – and still has a message in the whole region and it seemed at that turning point that “everyone had something to say , and a different way of saying it”, and therefore it was  of an immense importance in this book to give much interest to that message and the medium through which it was transmitted , but not mainly it is necessary to focus on the current and present or future situation , but it should be borne in mind that there are historical accumulations which would help defining the whole process properly and accurately, as the major transformations the Arab media witnessed with the emergence of satellite television and the creation of media cities.

Within the three parts of the book, it was perfectly intended to have different and insightful perspectives and readings of the issue of media and politics in the wake of the Arab Uprisings. It is sufficient to mention the professional and academic background of each contributor  to illustrate the previous position , since the contributors were experts, veteran journalists , academic lecturers in public diplomacy, global communication and Arab journalism, and many of them were Arab lecturers in the western universities who made studies and research about media and social changes in the Arab World , and even some of them conducted fundamental research about  the transition period of Arab Media in the wake of the uprisings (Fatima Elissawi was leading the project “Arab Revolutions : Media Revolutions” between 2012 and 2014 funded by  the Open Society Foundation).

The titles of each part of the whole book was indicative of  its content and the aim of the contributors to give a broad and complete reading and analysis of the relationship between politics and media in the Arab World , albeit mostly in the wake of the Arab uprisings, but too in stages before the uprisings and – in a slight manner – in the aftermath of the uprisings: “Arab Media in transition”, “space and the cultural production of Arab Media” and “Media, state interests, and non-state actors”, were respectively key elements to delve into the deep trajectories of the book, with other subtitles referring to each one of the nine contributions which have given enough interest and focus on the northern and eastern of the region: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya;  Syria, Yemen and Lebanon . It is worth mentioning that the first four countries were considered as perfect laboratories as long as the popular revolutions succeeded then to topple the incumbent regime and implied a radical change.

Needless to say that the emphasis given to the  crucial role of the digitization  of the Arab society in that period does not mean that the other factors were of low importance: within the book itself, some stressed at the outset that the body and space as a medium  – among many other factors – were determinable in heeding the waves of revolution to the shore of utter change especially in Tunisia and Egypt, but what about the other countries like Saudi Arabia which did not witness huge riots or  thousands of people storming the streets as in Egypt to demand more political reforms in a country where woman  at that period has not been allowed to drive a car. In page 8, Suzi Mirgani did admit that “the increased availability of digital technologies has changed the way people in that country {Saudi Arabia} communicate and what they are able to discuss openly within virtual public spheres”, that said, nevertheless, the regime has been so immune to any popular threat that may compels it to entail radical reforms regardless to the extent to which the people were influenced and introduced to digital communication. It seems that this element was not effective per se, but it was somehow difficult to drift the winds of change to the whole parts of the region, if each country has its own characteristics and the nature of the political systems differ, albeit their common tyrannical aspect, and the people’s frustrations and accumulative depressions were not identical.

Within this review, I have one basic question that was not asked throughout the book: are media and freedom of expression better now in the Arab World especially in the countries which knew complete change? It is apparent that the contributors of this book were not obliged to take this issue into consideration since the title itself of the book determined the period of which they were concerned – media and politics in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Unfortunately, the situation is worsening: Egypt, as an example, the incumbent president Abdelfattah Sissi is strengthening his grip on media and the public sphere in the country since he has been elected as a president of Egypt. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, and according to Freedom Annual Ranking, internet freedom declined dramatically in 2017, Egypt score is 68 /100, unlike its score in 2011 (54/100). “More than 100 websites—including those of prominent news outlets and human rights organizations—were blocked by June 2017, with the figure rising to 434 by October”.

In the meantime, Human Rights Watch criticized bitterly in a report in 2016 the Egyptian regime own measures to impose more restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly. For the latter, a decree issued in 2013 banned all anti-government protests remained in place, though it was subject to an ongoing legal challenge before the Supreme Constitutional Court. The situation of media in Egypt  has been deteriorating since president Assisi first  came to office – on May 26 in the last year , the head of the press syndicate and two senior board members were charged with harboring suspects and publishing false news which threatens public sphere, and worse than that, Reporters without borders, in a recent repot 2017, considered Egypt as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”, it stated that ten journalists have been killed since 2011, and “Some spend years in detention without being charged or tried. Others face long jail terms or even life imprisonment in iniquitous mass trials”. The position of Egypt in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index is worth to be considered: 161 Ranking -2 (159 in 2016).

In Libya, likewise, reporting has been a difficult task because of the political impasse resulting from the existence of rival governments in eastern and western sides of the country – in 2016, three journalists – two Libyan and one Dutch – were killed by militias or Islamic State. The position of Libya in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index is 163 Ranking +1 (164 in 2016). And according to Freedom House, network shutdowns continue in 2017 although internet freedom improved due to a reduction in arrests.

It is unfair not to appreciate the ongoing reforms in some Arab countries to improve media and guarantee the freedom of expression (Tunisia and Morocco as special models), but the process of reform is still so slow, and it is often thwarted in the middle of the road by political orientations and the regimes hesitations to lose the total control over the public sphere. it seems that “ironically, and with a few exceptions, the more open the media systems in the Arab world grew, the more closed the political systems became” (Mohamed Zayani, p. 24).

The battle over controlling the public sphere has shown no abatement, and the Arab political ruling elites have not yet understood the message.

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