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M A Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
19
F
OCUS ON THE
A
RAB
S
PR ING
T
HE
A
RAB
M
EDIA
S
S
HAKY
A
WAKENING
n activist media, and
citizens’ savvy use of online platforms, played an impor-
tant role in the protests that turned out dictators in Egypt
and Tunisia and ignited upheaval across the Arab world.
But in the second spring since those uprisings, the growth
of media freedom has been uneven in those states.
Satellite television channels have continued to grow in
an already crowded market, Internet use has spread rap-
idly, and citizen journalism has assumed a vital watchdog
function. Yet early actions by transitional leaders in each
country have given cause for concern.
While Egypt has yet to pass laws underpinning press
freedoms, it has cracked down on hundreds of civil society
groups, signaling an intention to stifle freedom of expres-
sion. In Tunisia, high-profile cases against a newspaper
and broadcaster have generated concern about the new
leadership’s commitment to media freedom. And ruling
forces in both countries have reasserted control over still-
influential state media.
For the moment, a new media landscape offers Arabs
and outside audiences alike a fascinating glimpse into the
ferment of societies ruled for decades by repressive
regimes. Tunisia and Egypt, having conducted initial
rounds of free elections, can serve as key testing grounds
for Arab press freedom. Few, however, see the media
gains as irreversible.
Transformative, Troubling Media
By the time of the Arab upheavals in early 2011, media
outlets throughout the region had already been undergo-
ing profound changes for more than a decade. Easing up
on media controls as a sort of release valve, a number of re-
pressive regimes permitted broadcasters and press re-
porters more leeway, including the freedom to air taboo
subjects. In the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and
Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, some believe this deci-
sion may have sowed the seeds of their own destruction.
Activists’ use of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and
the extraordinary reach of pan-Arab channel Al-Jazeera,
trained a spotlight on regime abuses and opened crucial
portals to information and debate. “This opening of closed
regimes to raw information and opinion, a faith in the
power of public ideas, was itself one of the key ideas un-
derpinning the Arab uprisings,” Marc Lynch, an expert on
the region and professor at The George Washington Uni-
A
FTER BREATHTAKING EXPANSION OF THEIR FREEDOMS
,
THE MEDIA NOW REFLECT THE UNSTEADY ADVANCE OF
DEMOCRACY IN THE
M
IDDLE
E
AST
.
B
Y
R
OBERT
J. M
C
M
AHON
Robert J. McMahon is editor of CFR.org, theWeb site of the
Council on Foreign Relations. Before that, he was director
of central news for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and
has written about media in transitional societies since 1995.