Until recently, journalism in the Arab world suffered under the heavy hand of authoritarian rulers who sought to control the symbolic power of the media, the major arbiter of public opinion. With the increasing importance of citizen journalism on the Internet, which has burgeoned since blogging started to gain popularity in 2003, the new media are not only impacting mainstream journalism but the political process itself. With the force of the blogosphere coming on the heals of the explosion of Arabic satellite news media over the past decade, the public has more diverse, credible, and culturally relevant information source to choose from than ever before. Online citizen journalism in the form of web logs (blogs) video blogs (vlogs) is emerging as a powerful force in the Arab world, where it is challenging the ability of the state to control the information environment and forcing mainstream journalists to compete with online citizen journalists.
Blogging in Egypt is taking off, although it is still relatively unknown and certainly not popular among the general public. However, among journalists and the professional, globalized class, it is an emergent phenomeneon. The Egyptian blog ring claims more than 1500 blogs, with slightly less than half of those published in English (http://www.egybloggers.com). The Egyptian Blog Review’s motto “from citizens to watchdogs” proclaims the potential for new forms of citizen media to bypass state control and self-censorship, evidence of the impact changes in global communications systems are having. These changes favor narrowcasting and transnational, sub-state media that provide a more realistic view of the world than the traditional state-run media. Rania Al Malky, a former journalist for the English-language Egypt Today, describes on her site how new media is both subversive to the state and empowering to the public: “In a country like Egypt where state control of the media has reached such epidemic proportions that self-censorship has become a worse threat than direct censorship, the empowering effect of a blog is undeniable. It was only natural that political activists would pick it up to spread their pro-reform message and coordinate demonstrations and other forms of civil action which have been slowly gaining momentum in the past two years. And they now have the tools to tell the real story of how their peaceful protests are ‘controlled’”.
These real stories have been an important source of information for citizens in the Arab world as well as for foreign journalists, governments and citizens. Such un-edited, un-hierarchical, un-censored information is likely to become more popular as Internet connectivity expands. Although the Internet remains a rare commodity in countries like Egypt, connectivity is rising and information communication technologies (ICTs) are at the heart of socioeconomic development. Last year the World Bank reported that Egypt, with more than 4 million Internet users, had the highest rate of Internet access among non-oil Arab states. President Hosni Mubarak created a new Ministry for ICT in 2005 and has built hundreds of internet access points in schools and communities across the country. Internet cafes abound and several restaurants and cafes offer free wireless connections for the more affluent of the younger generation. But having expanded access, Mubarak is now trying to reassert state authority over cyberspace by expanding the state security service into the virtual public arena. Last summer Internet café owners were told to start collecting the identity cards of all patrons. In March the government began prosecuting bloggers for the content of their blogs, perhaps realizing their influence beyond national borders.
Blogs in Egypt have become important sources of alternative information for domestic and foreign journalists, especially regarding abuses. For example, according to blog postings, the Egyptian media initially ignored the assaults on women that occurred during October’s Eid al Fitr festivities. So the blogs took it upon themselves to report and provide evidence of what happened through eye-witness accounts, posting video on YouTube and translating important accounts (see for example Global Voices, Manal and Alaa, Forsoothsayer, and Mechanical Crowds). The extensive online coverage eventually compelled the independent local press and foreign press to report the story. New and old media alike credited coverage of the story to blogs, reflecting a growing awareness of blogs not only as news outlets for unpopular stories but as sources and competitors for the mainstream media.
Many of the most popular journalistic blogs are in English, perhaps reflecting the fact that many of their official contributors have worked for Western media organizations, the ability to get away with more in English than Arabic, and the desire to communicate with an English-speaking audience that includes mainstream Western journalists. Western journalists in Egypt use Egyptian journalistic blogs to find out what’s happening in opposition movements and get ideas for stories, while Western journalists more broadly use blogs as a way of measuring the pulse of Egyptian politics and society. One foreign correspondent based in Cairo said she uses blogs to keep abreast of the opposition and to find out where protests will be held. But as blogs play an increasingly important agenda-setting role for the Western media they face growing repression in their own countries.
The growing attention being paid to bloggers and their blogs by journalists and human rights organizations has enhanced their popularity and influence. Unfortunately however, such attention is a double-edged sword, as growing interest brings more intimidation. One of the most well-known Egyptian bloggers who calls himself (?) SandMonkey (Rantings of a SandMonkey) recently stopped blogging because he feared his anonymity had been compromised and that he was being monitored. He explained that increasing intimidation by the security apparatus along with the failure of the Egyptian blogosphere to “focus” and use the media attention and admiration they have garnered to do something substantial to improve the political situation forced him to quit.
While many observers build their hopes for political reform and transformation on the power of the blogosphere, they fail to notice that there are few mechanisms to translate online discontent into real political change. The circuitous route by which information is reported on blogs, then picked up by the Western press, and subsequently read by policymakers who may choose to exert pressure on the offending government is unreliable and still depends on foreigners to pressure the government to reform. For example, in March a student blogger was arrested for the content of his blog postings, the first blogger prosecuted for his writing as opposed to his role in protests or political activism. The case was reported on heavily in the blogosphere and the United States released a statement expressing its disappointment with his conviction, calling it “a setback for human rights in Egypt.” Such statements, however, are rarely followed up by real sanctions and thus even pressure from important allies seems to have little real political impact other than simply drawing attention to the problem.
Arrests and attacks on bloggers most often occur because of their participation in political activities like protests. During the debate over a new press law last year, for example, blogger-journalists used their blogs to organize protests as well as report on them. Thus the protests held at the Press Syndicate throughout the summer of 2006 were organized through the professional, personal, and cyber networks of journalists and activists, and resulting abuses and repression were then reported on in the mainstream media as well as on blog postings in both English and Arabic. These resulted in arrests and abuses of journalists and bloggers by the government, which were covered domestically and globally, even making major world papers like The Washington Post and The Independent.
Perhaps, then, the more promising hope of the Internet for citizens in their quest for political reform lies in the potential for blogs to galvanize, inspire and organize. The organizational capacity and information dissemination made possible by such technology has undermined the ability of the state to control the public sphere. Demonstrations over the proposed press law and the Lebanon war showed the potential of blogging to organize political action and raise funds for victims and causes online. Blogs rallied to the causes of imprisoned bloggers, victims of the war in Lebanon, and those of the Dahab bombings by raising money through online donations. Bloggers have also been instrumental in creating media events that compel broadcasting media to cover them; and it is through this coverage by the mainstream media that the blogosphere has really gained its power. In their book about media events, Dayan and Katz showed how media events confer status on the participants and issues involved by giving voice to civil society actors who are not part of the hegemonic state apparatus, and how they can in turn mobilize public opinion in support of them and perhaps even serve as catalyst for social mobilization against the status quo. It is this organizational potential coupled with the powers of journalism that make blogging such an important phenomenon.
Courtney C. Radsch is a scholar and freelance journalist whose work focuses on the Arab media and politics.
This article was published by the magazine Reset in its September-October 2007 issue (no.103).