Bloggers take pride in shock value; societies long locked in fear need to be jolted awake. The explicative-laced personal attacks on, and unproven allegations about, politicians, journalists and other figures in “official” circles—what Americans in another era would have called “the man”—common on Middle East blogs are meant as an electronic slap in the face for regimes that have long kept the media in chains to keep themselves in power.
“Yes, I’m biased. And I like it this way,” says Mahmoud Saber, a prominent Egyptian blogger. For bloggers, that’s fine. Not so for journalists.
Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas has rightly been honored by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the BBC for uploading videos about torture by the Egyptian police and other scandals. Such postings play in important role in creating safe space for journalists to cover stories that would otherwise have been off-limits – and goading them into more aggressive reporting of their own. But Abbas, who was recently detained for several hours by Egyptian state security on his return from European trip, makes no pretense about his job. “We are not inverting the roles. Bloggers are not journalists. We are about promoting freedom of speech,” he told an interviewer.
“I don’t believe in detachment … or making sure that I am balanced,” writes “Zeinab,” another Egyptian blogger. “[But]I do try to be fair. I do try to check my facts and make sure that I am not citing make-believe figures. I try not to accuse anyone of anything too outlandish without proof and I generally attempt to stay away from unfounded hypotheses or offensive content.”
But not all online writers share that goal. The world is rightly transfixed by events in Iran. Lost in the cheerleading is the fact that Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and the like have created a vast electronic rumor mill. Unchecked, unverified, endlessly-forwarded “eyewitness” accounts create a propagandist’s dream. At a Congressional hearing during the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, a tearful, anonymous fifteen-year old Kuwaiti girl described how Saddam Hussein’s soldiers tore babies out of incubators and left them to die. It was a lie: she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador and it was all facilitated by a PR company. Does anyone doubt the same kind of thing is now happening in real time through blogs and tweets?
A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of Arab journalists believe a lack of professionalism is the greatest threat to their profession—greater even than government control. In that kind of environment, blurring the line between journalistic professionalism and political activism is, to say the least, counter-productive.
Let’s be clear: some bloggers are journalists who use the Internet to get around official censorship. For Libyan anti-corruption journalist Dhaif Al-Ghazaly, the Internet was the only way to avoid his country’s draconian media controls. He paid the ultimate price in 2006; the first Arab online writer to be killed. The murderers cut off his fingers before stabbing and shooting him as a chilling message to the rest.
Internet journalism holds a huge potential for fostering reform. Online news organizations like Kalima in Tunisia fill an important gap in countries where traditional print media and broadcasting is circumscribed. Their struggle should be bolstered, not undermined. They need training, funding and psychological support. Not a slap in the face. And that’s what happens when you send the message that there is no difference between professional journalists and those who spout vitriol, flog a cause or simply see media as a means to an end.
“This a country where barbers used to do the job of doctors,” says Abdelmonem Said, head of Egypt’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, who writes a newspaper column but does not consider himself a journalist. “We should not refer to [bloggers] as journalists unless they are qualified to perform the job of a journalist. Defending an activist in the name of journalism further complicates an already complicated situation.”
Professionalism is the best defense for Arab and Iranian journalists; facts their ultimate ally.
If everything written on the Web is equal, governments have an excuse to crack down on it all. And if journalist rights groups throw in their lot with political activists, it will be hard to make a case that jailed Iranian and Arab journalists shouldn’t be tried right alongside “cyberdissidents” advocating revolution and militants who throw bombs.
Read CPJ’s response here.