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Arab World

Influence And Freedom

Contributed by Mehrunisa Qayyum

“None of the MENA countries rank in the top 50,” according to the Reporters Without Border 2011-2012 ‘Press Freedom Index’.

This trend alone, calls for a conversation between media, civil society and emerging citizen journalists. For those who are wary of outside non-MENA based organizations judging MENA countries, I have an indigenous source too.  Here’s the sobering factoid: the Amman-based Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) conducted its survey on press freedom and found that only 2 percent of the 500 or so journalist said that they were entirely satisfied with the state of press freedom in the kingdom.

I needed to hear some good news, the bad is just so typical.

Somewhere between the optimism and the pessimism, the back and forth sentiments suffocate my need for a reality check.  I need to understand how people can succeed or inspire despite living in environments (like Syria, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey) that present challenges in expressing ideas, opinions, and limit media freedom.

How do people become agents of influence when media outlets determine when, how and who hears their narratives?  The who, what, when, and how determines impact.  If someone’s narrative impacts, then they represent influence. Right?

The good news is that Time Magazine announced its ‘Most Influential People for 2012’.  In particular, PITAPOLICY honed in on those from the pita-consuming region, listed below, and are among the ‘Most Influential’ (this is in no particular order):

  1. Ali Ferzat-Cartoonist, Syria
  2. Samira Ibrahim-Plaintiff, Egypt
  3. Manal Al-Sharif-Activist, Saudi Arabia
  4. Maryam Durrani-Broadcaster, Afghanistan
  5. Rached Ghannouchi-Politician, Tunisia
  6. Asghar Farhadi-Filmmaker, Iran
  7. Ali Babacan & Ahmet Davutoglu-”Neo-Ottomans”: Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Turkey
  8. Hammad bin Jassem bin Jaber al-Thani-Prime Minister & Foreign Minister, Qatar
  9. Ayatullah Ali Al-Khamenei- Supreme Leader, Iran
  10. Iftikhar Chaudry-Chief Justice, Pakistan

The terms “influencer” or “influential” connote a heavy judgment.  Simply put: Time’s yearly list not too far off from high school superlatives listed in a yearbook.  Ideally, my personal heroes would be counted among the 100.  However, in reality, whether we agree or not, the controversial exercise of voting “top 100 Influencers” provokes discussion.  On a less cynical note, the list inspires a discussion on what I would argue is the root cause for determining influence: Freedom of the Press.

Freedom of the press–or the limits imposed–pushes certain narratives forward for the less influential (audience) to accept or reject.  Conversely, the audience enjoys limited power through a feedback loop in repeating the narrative of the supposed influencer.  Each media outlet that picks up the narrative, and hits repeat, reproduces the cycle.  Voila: journalists turned bloggers note what’s ‘trending’ and repeat the narrative.  Twitter users, as many have argued, choose to amplify the narrative or amend the narrative.

Before you know it: Time Magazine puts a call out to its audience simplifying a year of initiative to about 100 or so top narratives.  In the end, the top narratives become influencers.  This may be good, if you are hero to a society. This might be bad, if you start applying relativism and algorithms to check on the list. This is one interpretation. Other interpretations are welcome.

The bad news is that Freedom House released its “Freedom of the Press 2012” report, which focused on the Middle East & North Africa region (MENA) entitled, “Breakthroughs and Pushback in the Middle East” compiled by Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Jennifer Dunham.  Specifically, the index assesses the 1) legal, 2) political, and 3) economic factors that influence print, broadcast and internet freedom.

Spoiler alert for the MENA region: more pushback is not necessarily a good thing in this case because censorship and press freedom still permeate many of the countries. When Saudi Arabia scores an 84, as it did this year, KSA didn’t earn a B- rating on its report card.  For this index, the higher the score, the worse the performance.

True, the “Breakthrough” highlights how “In 2011, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt improved to Partly Free as media freedom expanded with the fall of longtime dictators.”  But I remember how a seasoned Egyptian-American journalist, Hanan Elbadry, worried out loud that self-censorship in Egypt has increased despite the revolutionary spirit, at a media panel in Washington, DC.  As internet and mobile phone use balloons in the region, many MENA governments are adopting new means for controlling technologies that facilitate media freedom.

This region’s media environment underwent huge improvements in 2011, but it remained the worst-performing part of the world. Libya (60), Tunisia (51), and Egypt (57), all moved from ‘Not Free’ to ‘Partly Free’. Great news: recently Juan Cole described

Image from Roibal.com

Tunisia is “now freer than the US”.   However, Bahrain (84 points) and Syria (89 points) both experienced declines in press freedom amid crackdowns on protest movements. Conditions in Iran are still extremely restrictive, with 42 journalists behind bars–the most of any country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

On May 3rd, Bahrain revoked visas for an NGO (Freedom House) to conduct a site visit to follow up on previous recommendations.  The recommendations were not implemented.  Ironically, UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day celebrations began on May 3rd–in the MENA country of Tunisia.

I do not contest the report’s finding that MENA press sees a “significant net improvement”, but I see that for every Egypt moving forward in media freedom, there’s a Bahrain or two moving backward–and neutralizing the progress. Trends like this remind me that some of the top ‘Time Most Loveable Influencers’ in the region have been freely able to express themselves because they have emigrated from those environments limiting freedom expression, like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, among other great filmmakers.Those who were not so lucky and paid with their livelihoods: the Assad regime took revenge on Political Cartoonist, Ali Farzat, by breaking his hands.

Others are able to express themselves in spite of the environment–like Hammad binn Jassem bin Jaber al-Thani, who literally influences media since he is part of the three factors of production mentioned above: legal, political, and economic influence.




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