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Abdulrahman Elshayyal

The New Arab: An unshakable commitment to journalistic freedom

The New Arab has been blocked in parts of the Middle East [TNA]

Date of publication: 16 June, 2016

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The Arab Spring brought hope for the region's state-manipulated media landscape, but the counter-revolution reversed a lot of the gains, as attested to by the blocking of The New Arab.
The Arab Spring of 2011 presented hope for a region free from dictatorial rule and media constraints, but since that historical series of popular uprisings, much the opposite has happened. The Arab world is still plagued by media censorship, and independent journalism and objective coverage can be a life-threatening exercise.

In the words of the great John Milton, censorship is a "dishonour and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning". It may well be justified to consider that dishonour extended to the citizenry too.

The revolutions that began in late 2010 and enraptured millions all over the world were a window of opportunity for Arabs who had been living under suffocating conditions for decades.

For hundreds of thousands who protested in squares or took part in civil disobedience, this was an opportunity to shake off parasitic regimes that had been feeding from their bodies and souls since their birth.

Generations were born in societies governed by unelected, opaque systems of government that remained in power using brute force, cynical control of religious and cultural institutions and an inestimable reliance on subservient and acquiescent media empires.

Access to information, even for seemingly mundane things, was a heavily controlled exercise. Ministries of Education were highly selective in what students had access to, bookstores were told what to buy and sell, and of course the internet - which revolutionised knowledge transfer - was also heavily censored and restricted.

Newspapers, radio and TV stations oscillated from blatant state propaganda and disinformation campaigns to docile self-censorship, all the while cowering in the shadow of the state's long-reaching arm.

This most depressing of situations was simply the most logical environment for these despotic regimes to promote. It helped them flourish. More importantly, it helped them retain power.

Silencing independent voices, muzzling dissent and preventing any kind of accountability meant that citizens only heard what the state wanted them to hear. By default, this meant that the state was also able to control what the citizens knew.

Silencing independent voices, muzzling dissent and preventing any kind of accountability meant that citizens only heard what the state wanted them to hear.

A chilling and Orwellian scenario, things remained this way even during the early parts of the revolutions when state - and state controlled - media wouldn't report the demonstrations that were taking place. Indeed, their TV feeds were of 'peaceful' images and TV hosts assuring viewers that no such reported demonstrations were really taking place.

Were it not for the social media boom and the rise of citizen journalists sharing reports between them, who knows if these revolutions would have ever taken place.

After these regimes were toppled, or at least seemingly toppled, the media landscape erupted into a free speech frenzy - in which every kind of suppressed opinion made its way to the airwaves and in print. Arab society appeared to be trying to make up for years of stifled debate by talking about everything at the same time.

There were negative aspects to this freedom; the extreme reaction to the sudden absence of censorship meant that incitement and sectarianism - which was perhaps ironically previously controlled and manipulated by the state - became uncontrolled and far more widespread than before.

Great damage was being done to the social fabric of society. Yet there were positive elements too. Almost unheard of debates were sparked. Indeed, the Arab world's first ever presidential debate occurred on live TV, allowing audiences the chance to see candidates grilled on their manifestos.

Unfortunately this was a short-lived euphoria. The forces that had stayed in power for so long worked to overturn and destroy the precious few steps that were taken towards freedom - and while there were inexcusable mistakes made by the various groups that took part in these revolutions, what we now refer to in Arabic as "counter-revolutionary forces" began forming in the shadows to bring these regimes back to power in even more vicious incarnations.

After the regimes were toppled, or at least seemingly toppled, the media landscape erupted into a free speech frenzy.

Democratic voices within the Arab world looked on with alarm as the Arab Spring descended into a bloody mess. It was also very clear that the media powers had reverted to their previous role of propaganda and disinformation, attacking any kind of democratic movement or attempt at political engagement and reform with relish.

A striking polarisation was skilfully engineered: Stand on the side of dictatorships - or stand on the side of Islamic extremists. Any nuanced approach to what was happening in the region, any objective coverage, any attempts at offering platforms to dissenting voices were immediately attacked.

To counter this, one of the Arab world's leading democratic voices, indeed, one of its most prominent thinkers, Dr Azmi Bishara, founded The New Arab - from its title you can see a commitment to try and embody the same spirit and optimism that was felt by millions during the Arab Spring.

Independent and brave, our organisation has grown significantly within the past two years. Our commitment to democracy, to pluralism and to freedom of expression is unshakeable.

Over the past two years, The New Arab has broken stories which were taken up by Middle East-focused outlets as well as familiar organisations including The Guardian, the BBC, Time magazine and others.

Over the past two years, The New Arab has broken stories which were taken up by Middle East-focused outlets as well as familiar organisations including The Guardian, the BBC, Time magazine and others.

In late December last year, three Arab countries decided to block us - to erase our presence from the internet as seen from their territories. This meant that people living there cannot access our website except through proxy sites.

This has prevented them from access to one of the few existing independent media sources - leaving them with state-approved voices that do little to inform them about what is really happening in their countries or around the world.

This was obviously intended to intimidate us. It was meant to force us to change our critical editorial line - possibly even to scare audiences away. But, so far, we have kept doing our job in the belief that Arab people deserve better - and our audiences have rewarded us by coming back.

The media world can be cut-throat and vindictive; though we have frequently supported the causes of free press in the region and highlighted injustices meted out to journalists, we received little support from our peers in the region when we were blocked - with some even peddling rumours and insinuations that we were members of certain groups or religious movements.

Yet again, this is untrue - and our growing and returning audience proves our readers do not believe this. If our readers do not have a sincere trust in our work, the bond of journalistic integrity is broken, and our readers would have long ago abandoned us.

The New Arab, as an independent news outlet, has a duty to its audiences to tell them the facts about what is happening on the ground in their countries and to provide objective and accurate analysis of events that are shaping their world. Banning us and others like us is a regressive step that does not reflect positively on the governments that have done so. While I hope that this changes, we will remain doing what we have been doing.

Milton, in a statement which helps sums up the aspiration of Arabs all over the region, said: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."

I would add to that the fiercely resolute line from the Tunisian AbulQassim Alshabbi:

"If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.

And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall."




On Wednesday, a panel discussion organised by The New Arab was held in the UK House of Commons to discuss the challenges faced by the media and journalists in the post-Arab Spring era.

This discussion, hosted by MP Tommy Sheppard, explored the current state of the media in the region and the future of press freedom in the wider Arab world. 

The speakers were Fatima El-Issawi, Research Fellow, LSE Middle East Centre; Melody Patry, Advocacy Officer at Index on Censorship; and Abdu Elshayyal, CEO of The New Arab.

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