Before there was Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or even Al Jazeera, there was Hama, Syria. It was 1982 and an anti-government protest was put down with ferocious violence. The Syrian government simply destroyed whole sections of the city, leaving at least ten thousand people dead. But the slaughter went unreported in that closed society. Those of us trying to cover the story from nearby Beirut had little more to work with than hearsay, and
certainly no pictures.

Nearly a decade later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi media sat on the story for three days while the government formulated its response. And the list goes on. Autocratic Arab governments have long controlled news and information with an iron hand.

No more. They try to do so in 2011, but competing versions of reality seep in—and out—through every electronic pore. There has been much talk of a “Facebook Revolution” and of “The Al Jazeera Revolution,” as some headline writers have described the uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa since Tunisia erupted in December. Both are over-simplifications. Modern communications gave vent to long-simmering resentments of entrenched autocratic regimes. The Arab world’s youth bubble means that a third of the population is between fifteen and twenty-nine years old, and unemployment among youth is rampant: 31 percent in Tunisia, 27 percent in Egypt, 43 percent in Algeria. Even in wealthy Saudi Arabia, 16 percent of young adults, many with college degrees from the West, can’t find jobs. And then there is the grinding poverty of the masses. Millions of Egyptians scrape by on less than $2 a day.

Still, without social media, the sights and sounds of Tunisia’s first tentative protests may never have escaped the confines of the villages where they occurred. Without satellite television, a vision of revolution would never have entered living rooms across the Arab world.

Now we’re in a new phase. As Arab politics are transformed, journalists across the region are assessing their role in this new landscape, warily testing boundaries, adjusting to new realities, and daring to dream of the possibilities.

The ability of Arab autocrats to control the message first began to weaken in 1996, with the arrival of Al Jazeera, which was always more than a news network. Al Jazeera shook up the region by providing an electronic soapbox for voices long marginalized by state-run broadcasters. The channel’s aggressive style inspired viewers across the region. The revolutions rocking the Arab world are the inevitable outcome.

“Al Jazeera has become an instrument of Arab political empowerment and mobilization,” says Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at The American University of Beirut, and editor at large of Beirut’s Daily Star. The network’s sensibility, he continues, emboldened Arabs, making them realize the anger and frustration they felt were “sentiments shared across the region.”

Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director general, says the channel’s editorial policy “gives priority to the grievances and aspirations of ordinary people,” as he put it in a February 25 Washington Post op-ed piece. And he’s proud of that.

It was clear to us that a revolution was in the making, and it was happening far from the gaze of a tame and superficial establishment media that allied itself with the powerful center…. Keen to conduct interviews with high-level officials and ever willing to cover repetitious news conferences, they remained oblivious to what was happening on the ground.

At Al Jazeera we have spared no effort to search for the real actors, wherever they happen to be: whether in the cities, in the countryside, in camps, in prisons or in the blogosphere. We have been guided by a firm belief that the future of the Arab world will be shaped by people from outside the aging elites and debilitated political structures featured so disproportionately by most other news outlets.

The real actors did not appear on most television screens or magazine covers, whether in the Arab world or in Western media. Cameras were not attracted to them; columnists rarely mentioned them. Yet that did not deter them.

The notion of a TV network as a change agent may be jarring to some US news people. Still, journalist-activists like Thomas Paine played a key role in America’s own revolution, and oppressive leaders—whether a King George, a Tsar Nicholas, or a Joseph McCarthy—tend to breed journalists agitating for reform. A survey of six hundred Arab journalists in nineteen countries that I conducted three years ago found that 75 percent said their mission was driving political and social change.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.