To Lawrence Pintak, the current upheaval in the Middle East underscores a stark technological reality for authoritarian regimes throughout that region and across the globe:
“Nations no longer can hope to control the flow of information nor isolate their citizens from the outside world.”
Pintak, founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, was director of the Center for Journalism Training and Research at The American University in Cairo and is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent. In an accident of timing, his recent book on the Middle East, The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil, hit the streets at almost the same time as the mass of protestors in Cairo.
“The upheaval underscores a grim reality for authoritarian regimes the world over: The electronic dam has burst and, with it, their ability to control the flow of information,” Pintak wrote in a recent article for CNN.com. “There is a direct line between this revolt and the Arab media revolution launched 15 years ago. One might even argue it is the inevitable result. The demand for change has become an electronic virus, seeping into nations through every unblocked pore.”
To illustrate the profound impact of this digital revolution on communications in the Middle East, Pintak pointed out that as recently as the mid-1990s, it would have been entirely possible for a major protest to occur in Cairo without many Egyptians even knowing.
“Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, the Egyptian government had a near-monopoly on the flow of information to its people. So complete was the control that Egyptians celebrated news from the state media of the victory over Israel in the 1967 war, even as the Egyptian air force was being wiped out,” Pintak said. “In this level of control, Egypt is not alone. Most Saudis didn’t know Iraq had invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990 because the Saudi state media waited three days to announce the news.”
What changed, he said, was the arrival of Al Jazeera, the first largely independent pan-Arab satellite channel in 1996.
“Suddenly, Arabs across the region were seeing an aggressive new style of reporting, in Arabic by fellow Arabs, witnessing events long hidden and hearing from figures banned from government TV stations,” he said. “Today, there are hundreds of Arab satellite channels representing every political viewpoint, while independent newspapers and websites have sprung up across the region.
And even if governments could somehow put the journalistic genie “back in the bottle,” Pintak argues there is the army of media-savvy activists who have seized on tools like blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of instant messaging as weapons — what Egyptians now call “Massbook” — in their battle with entrenched regimes.
“Crusading journalists and digitally armed activists. It was a combination lethal to Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and proving toxic to Hosni Mubarak,” Pintak said.