behind the news

Post-Arab Spring, citizen journalists struggle

Bloggers and activists met to discuss free speech crackdowns across the region
January 31, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan–Three years have passed since the Arab Spring, when popular uprisings broke out against authoritarian governments across the Middle East. As state-controlled outlets ignored popular protests at the time, citizens from Tunisia and Egypt to Morocco and Syria turned to the Internet, where independent bloggers provided the most trustworthy coverage of what was happening in the streets.

Since then, however, ideological splits have overtaken that digital space and rendered citizen blogging and journalism less and less credible, according to participants at the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting, a gathering of about 70 activists and journalists held in Amman last week.

“Most bloggers are suspected of being local parties’ agents,” Tunisian activist Malek Khadraoui said at the public forum that closed the gathering. And with no guarantee of professionalism among citizen journalists, Arab audiences are left to choose between state-controlled official media and a cacophony of online voices, with little means to discern which ones to trust.

This online factionalism is fueled by ongoing Arab Spring backlashes, which have seen free speech in places like Egypt regress to pre-revolution conditions after a brief period when independent journalism flourished. Citizen journalists like Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and Syrian Bassel Khartabil have been imprisoned–Abdel Fattah since November 2013, Khartabil since March 2012–for supposed participation in political protests, which are illegal in several countries.

Repression has driven activists to bickering rather than banding together as they disagree on how best to resist, participants said. “We are drowning in a sea of different campaigns online,” said Palestinian blogger Abir Kopty. “Everyone has different priorities.”

At the same time, governments and parties have infiltrated the blogosphere, paying to pit opinions against each other as part of their larger power struggle. “If you search #Syria, for example, you’ll see people bombarding the internet,” said Bahraini journalist Amira Al Hussaini. “There are e-armies, online mercenaries.”

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Those who resist ideological affiliation are pressured and arrested, participants said. Conference attendees paid tribute to both Abdel Fattah and Khartabil throughout the week, sending out tweets, videos, and photos demanding their release.

“Abdel Fattah is an example of what you face if you don’t submit to polarization,” said Khadraoui. “Alaa was imprisoned at every stage that Egypt went through. He doesn’t belong to any particular party. The people who stuck to the principles we fought for now find themselves isolated.”

While some countries struggle with polarization and government surveillance, others are still fighting blatant and punitive censorship, said Yemeni media researcher Walid Al-Saqaf. “You take your ability to complain about surveillance for granted. Censorship removes your right to even talk about these issues,” Al-Saqaf said. “In a prison cell I have all the privacy I need, but I cannot reach the world to say what I want.”

The conference closed with Lina Attalah, co-founder of Egyptian news site Mada Masr, asking for more regional collaboration.

“The Egypt story is becoming so claustrophobic,” she said. “Part of being able to make sense of what’s happening is to put it in the wider context of the Arab region.” Post-2011 disappointment should not stop journalists from sharing strategic, tactical, historical perspectives from across the Middle East, she added. Mutual support grows from gatherings like the Arab Bloggers Meeting, even with its small size and noticeably missing participants, whether detained or blocked from obtaining their visas. “It helps us deal with local conditions. It’s critical. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Alice Su is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, China, formerly in Amman, Jordan. Follow her on Twitter @aliceysu.