By Ramzy Baroud, Arab News, 29 April 2016
Citizen journalism in Mideast
Arundhati Roy (prize-winning author. Ed) once wrote: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
The term “voiceless” gives the misleading impression that the infirmity is in those who have no voice, not in us — media professionals and content creators — who refuse to give those alleged ‘voiceless’ a platform to speak.
The Middle East is rife with this unsettling reality, and Middle Eastern journalists are as guilty as outsiders who perceive the region’s seemingly perpetual conflicts as a mere opportunity for fame and recognition.
Yet, it rarely dawns on many journalists to position their reporting on the Middle East from grassroots, beginning with people who are mostly disgruntled by whatever story is being reported: The victims, their families and the community as a whole. While such voices are often neglected or used as content fillers, they are seldom the centre of any serious reporting from the region.
The current state of Middle Eastern media in general, and Arab media in particular, is that of adversity, but also opportunity. The opportunity is a result of various Internet technologies and social media platforms that are available to a growing number of people across the region. The accessibility and openness of this new technologically-based media have ushered in the rise of citizen journalism — a new media content producer which is able to counter, and at times, overtake dominant traditional media narratives.
However, as with all forms of media, that too comes with its own challenges. The agendas of many media platforms are generally controlled by a well-funded few. Hence, one challenge faced by independent citizen journalists is the lack of independent media platforms that could offer them a free and neutral stage and space for their work, without them being coerced into tailoring their content to fit existing media agendas.
The current state of Arab media is in particular need of such alternative platforms. The so-called Arab Spring made matters even more difficult. Its decisive collective agenda was that of “regime change,” and this left no room for political bargaining or compromise. It further muddled regional agendas, creating new alliances, and once more emphasized the power of the media to harness and sway public opinions.
In contrast, social media was harder to control, for it remained a relatively free space. However, since it compels a degree of anonymity to its users, it opened up a completely new challenge in attempting to authenticate information through the endless stream of content, and extract genuine voices who had been deemed ‘voiceless.’
Although many attempts at an equitable media platform in many Arab countries were quelled, numerous voices, however small, continued to fight for space and raise their cries against the brazen attempts at silencing anyone who did not agree. Once more, truly independent Arab intellectuals found themselves having to navigate an impossible media terrain. However, the failure to allow an authentic and just media presence is not specific to Arab countries. Western mainstream and corporate media have done a dreadful job at presenting an accurate picture of the reality in the Middle East. The core of this failure was exemplified in the coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, during which Israel was repeatedly presented as the victim, and Palestinians as the aggressors — this misrepresentation being itself a transgression against facts and common sense.
The “Arab Spring” complicated an already difficult and convoluted media scene. While physical maps remained largely intact, the geopolitical map of the region was in a state of constant influx. Following and reporting about these constant changes without a deep and compassionate understanding of the region achieved little but predictable and lackluster content that offered only recycled ideas and stereotypes.
Ultimately there was a mix of media agendas. In the midst of it all, majority of the people of the region were neglected, misrepresented, stereotyped, criminalized and at times, entirely overlooked.
But things began to change in recent years, especially following the massive shift that the Internet has brought about. When it was first introduced, it quickly started to make its way toward greater participation from people around the globe, hence challenging the traditional media and its hegemony over the Middle East, as well as similar discourses across the world. Of course, social media has not fully closed the inequality gap or put to an end the dominance of traditional and mainstream media. The Internet has, however, launched a process that revitalized society sufficiently to seek its own alternative in any area pertaining to information, which various segments of society felt was deceitfully imparted or tightly controlled. There is still a long distance to go before mainstream, corporate and self-serving media are fully challenged, if not side-lined. But the unmistakable trend has already been unleashed, ushering in a new kind of thinking and of information that was once either wholly unavailable, and if available, inaccessible.
The media conflict is likely to continue, but the battle lines have been drawn and are in a process of constant change and expansion. They favor the new media platforms, empowered by a new generation whose priorities reflect those of the majority of peoples.