In 2011, an uprising of massive proportions rippled through Northern Africa and the Middle East, leading to the overthrow of several dictators and the re-workings of many monarchies. While there were undoubtedly many factors that contributed to the success of the movement, “One of the most consistent narratives…has been that the Internet, mobile phones, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter made the difference this time,” (Howard & Hussain, 2011 p. 35).
Of course, it was not as these websites were all discovered and then utilized in one day. Rumblings of revlolution had been bouncing around the internet for years, passing from citizen journalists writing in-depth blog entries to YouTube videos showing Tunisia’s presidential jet touching down in exclusive European shopping destinations (Howard & Hussain, 2011 p. 36). Even before the public began to organize using these avenues, governments were aware of the threat the internet posed to their power, and tried to crack down on access by banning social media websites. It only took days for the public to find a workaround (Howard & Hussain, 2011 p. 37). When they were ready, activists used websites, especially Twitter, to organize protests, spread information, and get their word out to the rest of the world.
This portion of history, now known as Arab Spring, has earned social media websites validation, and graduated them from pointless pop culture vehicles to important social tools that can literally overthrow governments.
This development is, in a way, a win for democracy. But oppressive governments still stand, and are taking new strategies to censor the proliferation of information.
Earlier today, three English journalists in Egypt were convicted of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, a blow to freedom of expression that was immediately felt around the world. Two of the journalists were sentenced to seven years behind bars and the third was sentenced to ten (Stelter & Fantz, 2014).
The harsh punishments handed down to these reporters were the latest in a string of harsh actions taken against members of the press in countries with oppressive governments. In some cases, as in Egypt, Russia and Turkey, laws that were passed to enhance national security are being enforced in ways that prevent journalists from being balanced and objective (Ginsberg 2014). The hope is that journalists will be so scared, they will only cover perspectives and stories that back the government’s point of view.
Currently, there are 200 journalists jailed worldwide for doing nothing more than their jobs. That number is almost a record high (Ginsberg 2014). What is more disturbing is that the number only accounts for professional journalists with credentials, and not for every day citizens who are arrested by their government for reporting, like those who incited Arab Spring in the first place.
It is a disappointing turn for freedom, as dictators who can’t stop technology look to stop people instead.
Ginsberg, Jodie. (2014, Jun 23). Egypt Jailing Al Jazeera Journalists is Another Blow to Freedom of Expression. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/.
Howard, Philip N., & Hussain, Muzammil M. (2011, July). The Role of Digital media. Journal of Democracy, (22), 35-48.
Stelter, Brian & Fantz, Ashley. (2014, Jun 23). Jailed Al Jazeera Journalists Convicted in Egypt. CNN World. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/.