Fatima el Issawi
The adventure started in 2012. Just after the first outbursts of the “dignity” uprisings that occupied the Arab street, I was occupied by the question of the role of Arab national media in these transformational movements and whether this sector, severely manipulated by regimes for decades, would seize the opportunity to rebel against political control and review its practices. The assumption was optimistic and somehow naïve, given the heavy weight of restrictions of all kinds and the entrenched traditions of censorship, largely embraced by journalists in the name of ‘national interests’. But that was a unique “parenthesis” in the history of the Arab world, a time for hope, emotions and joy. Despite the difficulties, a feeling of rebirth was in the air. Debates on how to reclaim legitimacy and recognition from the public was fuelling enthusiasm among journalists. Back this year to the field with the start of my new research project, I found a street muzzled by fear but not yet silent. In the raging counter revolutions, Big Brother is back and the large majority of journalists are again reduced to self-censorship when they are not co-opted by the system.
My research on the interplay between national traditional media and political change was previously supported by two generous grants, one from the Open Society Foundations and the other from the Middle East Centre of London School of Economics. Using comparative analysis and case studies, the empirical investigation covered Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Algeria, and depicted the role played by traditional media and its impact on these movements. The investigation traced the story of these uprisings as lived by journalists, who have themselves faced tremendous pressure while reporting on these difficult and often dangerous processes of change. What can professional journalism mean when the taboos had fallen—only symbolically in some cases—and journalists have to reinvent their roles? Confusion, a deluge of personal opinions and emotions, tears live on air, doubts, questions regarding identity and newsrooms’ ‘rebellions’ against traditions of obedience to political power. From this journey, I keep acute memories, some of them deeply anchored: a long evening interview in a hotel cafe overlooking the Nile in Cairo fighting my fatigue while listening to this talk show host passionately recounting her struggle between professional journalism and activism after she decided to join demonstrators in Tahrir Square, to become the media figure of the uprising. And this Libyan talk show host, who had a firm response to my question on whether she regrets the time of stability under Ghaddafi, having to face threats and attacks in the new Libya. To my questions she had a clear and swift answer: things are bad, but I can say they are bad, something I could never imagine saying under Ghaddafi.
I was recently back to the region to start my new project, funded by a generous grant from the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme. The project ‘Media and Transitions to Democracy: Journalistic Practices in Communicating Conflicts—the Arab Spring’ aims to investigate the political role played by national media in communicating conflicts that arise from tumultuous political change and how this impacts the trajectories of these conflicts, gathering an international interdisciplinary team of reputable scholars. But times have changed; we are now surrounded by raging counter revolutions: locking journalists and bloggers behind bars, and death sentences based on “evidence” obtained under torture while the world is watching. It is a time when we witnessed a journalist being butchered with a bone saw in the consulate of his own country, for simply expressing critical opinions.
My first recent visit to the field confirms the scope of fear—real or imagined—reducing journalists, bloggers, activists and even ordinary citizens to fear but not yet fall silent. I was myself taken hostage by this environment of fear. Big Brother is everywhere. How can we evade his grasp? He can follow us to the newsroom, the coffee shop, the street and even to the bedroom. But this is a story that deserves to be told; not only a story of fear but also one of resistance and resilience in unexpected and creative forms: the vulnerable Tunisian success story is still a reality despite all the difficulties, amid a return in force to nationalism and old regime tactics of repression. Algerian streets are buzzing with calls for democracy against a shameful bid by an ailing president for a fifth term in office, in defiance of a ban on protests, shaking the deep-rooted habits of regime propaganda in state-owned media. In the apparently quiet Moroccan public sphere, ordinary citizens rallied around an economic boycott to subvert the growing control by companies close to the Palace dominating the economy and ultimately the political and media scene in the kingdom. In an Egypt witnessing the worst phase of dictatorship in its modern history, President Abdel Fatth el Sisi is still not able to highjack the most powerful weapon of resistance historically mastered by Egyptians: the power of laughter.
Eight years after the uprisings, it is still a story that deserves to be told. It is now a new story, that of the struggle of resistance against fear; a new story, but definitely not a finished one.
Fatima el Issawi is the principal investigator for the research project ‘Arab Media and Transitions to Democracy: Journalistic Practices in Communicating Conflicts––the Arab Spring”. She is Senior Lecturer of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Essex and is the author of ‘Arab National Media and Political Change
“Recording the Transition”’. She tweets at @elIssawi