While journalists in the United States have to worry about Tweeting out misinformation, journalists in the Arab world have to worry about their Tweets getting them thrown into jail.
At Al Jazeera’s Eighth Annual Forum in Doha, Qatar last month, 700 media and political leaders gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the media. Meanwhile, the trial of three Al Jazeera journalists, who have since been sentenced to serve jail time in Egypt came up frequently in the conversations.
One Al Jazeera journalist attending the conference, Sami al-Hajj, is now among those at the network working with the Egyptian government to release the imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists. Hajj was captured by the Pakistani Army, while on assignment as a video journalist in 2001, and imprisoned at Guantanamo for six years — the only journalist out of 779 known detainees.
During a session on the future of change in the Arab world, leaders from the region discussed the role media — especially social media — has played in the revolutions throughout many countries in the Middle East.
“The new generation is going through the biggest and deepest transitions. If people think by imprisoning and torturing people will solve this problem – it will not,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political studies at Kuwait University.
Instead, he said that people are harnessing Twitter and other social networks to “play the role of responsible opposition” to the status quo.
“How we treat this young generation will determine if we bring the best or the worst out of them,” Ghabra said. “We to need to open more room for dialogue.”
Independent filmmakers, innovators and those on social media have found ways to strategically harness the power of media firsthand.
Throughout the revolutions, social media has helped created a bevy of YouTube celebrities who have helped a new generation deconstruct pressing issues facing their societies in new ways. One forum speaker, Youssef Hussen, is famous on YouTube for creating the Egyptian political satire YouTube channel JoeTube, which has more than one million subscribers.
“We’ve learned our ability to create a spectacle of dissent that the media would pay attention to,” said Mohamed Nanabhay, a board member for the Media Development Investment Fund. For example, in 2011 people used mobile devices and social media to create and share first-hand accounts from the uprisings in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
During a tour of Al Jazeera studios on the day of the Egyptian elections, Al Jazeera English presenter Kahmal Santamaria pulled up a Twitter stream of the hashtag #AJEgypt on his iPad and projected the page to the wall of the set using the studio’s Apple TV. He produces social media segments like this to cover stories that may be inaccessible or unsafe for journalists to cover.
The Arab region has transitioned from a top-down media-controlled environment into the culture where people have a voice through and because social media — using innovative news gathering tools to share their stories beyond the region.
For example in May 2013, Tim Pool used Google Glass to live stream video from riots in Istanbul,Turkey. It was his first assignment for Vice.
Tools like Firechat let people connect “off-the-grid” to others nearby without a mobile or wireless network. This tool addresses a concern for many content creators in the Arab world who want their mobile messaging to go undetected.
“In the Middle East, the media is our education and it needs to be used to bring unheard stories to the forefront,” said Muna Abusulayman, host of Kalam Nawaem, a popular female-hosted talk show in the Middle East. “The educational and cultural system has failed.”
The forum focused on changes in the Arab world; it also revealed many of the complexities that are easy to overlook from afar.
“Not all Arab countries are not similar to one another. There are social fault lines within each countries,” said Dr. Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, an adviser to the president of Sudan. “We cannot escape situations without an international dialogue.”
Here are some people worth following on Twitter to keep up on news in the Middle East:
Salwa Abdel Tawab (@SalwaAbdelTawab) – journalist and producer at Al Jazeera Arabic.
Muna Absulayaman (@MunaAbuSulayman) – Host of Kalam Nawaem (translates in English to “Sweet Talk”), a popular female-hosted talk show the Middle East. AbuSulayman is also the Saudi Arabian United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.
Kamahl Santamaria (@KamahlAJE) – Journalist at Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar, who frequently uses social media in his broadcasts to report on news from danger zones.
Yousef Hussein (@JoeTubeShow) – Creator of the parody YouTube show, JoeTube.
Ahmad Alshammari (@aahmadwaleed) – Created the Kuwaiti YouTube comedy show, “Sheno Yaani?” (translates in English to “So What?”)