Fifteen years ago, I published my first news piece in a print magazine. After that, I went on a long journey discovering and working in diverse fields including blogging, citizen journalism, campaigning, translating, producing and managing. Some roads were bumpy while I found myself in others, and these became a launchpad to some successful media initiatives.
However, working in independent media in the Arab world has become increasingly more difficult, especially since the counter-revolutions began to gain strength in 2013.
Counter-revolutions have had a profound effect on the media industry, both in the countries of the Arab Spring and across the wider Arab world.
Security authorities have come to realize the power of the media and its impact on public opinion, as illustrated notably in 2011, when social media platforms were successfully used to mobilize people in protests, resulting in a political transition in a number of Arab countries. At the time, many television networks were prompted to change their policies and give more airtime to young voices. By 2013, things had completely changed.
Pre-2011, social media platform users in the Arab world were mostly young people who belonged to what can be classified as a rising middle class. However, following the 2011 uprisings, the general Arab public increasingly signed up to those platforms and started following them closely. This led to a significant change in the nature of discussions on those platforms. The new users came from different age groups and backgrounds, and Facebook, among other platforms, ceased to be a safe space to hold political discussions or start human rights campaigns.
Facebook debates turned into social confrontations that could land people in jail — something that has happened to many Egyptians who were simply expressing their views about current events in their country. Furthermore, many Egyptian journalists were arrested for doing their jobs, bringing Egypt up to the shameful third place in the world ranking of countries with journalists behind bars, after China and Turkey.
At the same time, the Egyptian State launched a crackdown on independent media outlets. Hundreds of websites have been blocked in Egypt and journalists have been demonized, portrayed as working for foreign entities and betraying their country. These actions have affected the personal security of all journalists.
The Egyptian government also moved to establish a number of companies with ties to state security agencies and the intelligence service. These new companies then acquired many television networks and news websites, which led to identical news coverage on all of the outlets.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election laid bare the role played by social media in making fake news go viral, which in turn prompted social media platforms to work on adapting their algorithms such that less news would be posted in news feeds, instead favoring a higher proportion of posts from friends and family. This greatly affected the independent media industry in Egypt, most of which had already fled from traditional news websites to social media networks in an attempt to reach the public.
The Egyptian State does not allow for an independent media, and constantly seeks to hinder any funding for institutions supporting independent media by drafting legislation aimed at paralyzing civil society. Alternative methods like social media outlets are also facing a crisis, not to mention the numerous risks faced by everyone involved in media.
How to solve this dilemma?
This is what I am trying to answer in my journey as a fellow in the Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Independent journalism in the Arab world has generally kept to traditional means of publishing its content, such as text-based news and multimedia. Independent initiatives have not sufficiently explored innovative ways of doing their critical jobs in these tough years.
Al Jazeera’s AJ+ has greatly impacted the news industry both globally and in the Arab world. The digital consumer has become more interested in video than text-based content. However, a wide-scale investment in digital news has not happened yet.
Chatbots, Telegram groups and Instagram accounts have provided new tools for publishing content. For example, Iran is a country where Telegram and Instagram are widely used, and Telegram was employed during the 2017–18 protest against the regime to circumvent governmental obstruction, enabling protesters to coordinate and to inform the world about events in the country. Similar ways of using new tools will give greater chances for independent media to reach wider audiences.
The dependence of such initiatives on a small number of donor NGOs has, however, contributed to limiting the chances for discovering new tools in the media industry and in seeking out funding.
I’m looking for solutions to this complex dilemma by aiming to create a new model of non-profit journalism based on grants and individual donations. This model would ideally be able to reach an audience of millions using new tools that can bypass governmental obstruction. These restrictions may have succeeded so far in disrupting journalism in the Arab world, but cannot obstruct journalism forever.