Media and Political Transformations in the Arab Spring

On Wednesday (15 May 2013) I had the honor of introducing a documentary film ‘Words of Witness’ as it premiered as part of the Human Right Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF).   The documentary was made during the Egyptian uprising, by Filmmaker Mai Iskander. The film follows Heba Affy, an online journalist reporting from the front-line of the revolution. I was asked by the Festival organisers to introduce the film and provide the audience with some updated reflections on the current political situation in Egypt and across the Arab Spring countries.

Focusing on the occasion and the role of journalism and media in society, I thought reflecting on existing difficulties in reforming media across the Arab Spring countries would not be a bad idea. It is no secret that the autocratic regimes of ousted dictators Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Gaddafi of Libya and Ali Salah of Yemen had all strangled mainstream media and turned it into a compliant instrument of the state. Media, in all its forms, has been subjected to strict control and relentless suffocating so much so that journalists never behaved in a manner befitting of the profession. Media outlets did not openly critique the leadership, nor were they allowed to exercise their roles with any degree of objectivity and independence. Indeed, it was social media and in particular twitter and Facebook accessed via smart phones and new technologies that ended up escaping the iron grip that the authoritarian rulers had on public discourse.  

Yet, more than 26 months after the toppling of these dictatorships, the task of reforming this vital institution does not seem to be progressing as expeditiously as most would have hoped for, in part this is due to the fact that there is a lack of genuine human capacity to undertake this mammoth task.  This starts with the lack of relevant legislative frameworks, but also relates to the dearth of competent leadership of media, to the out-dated training provided in government colleges and to current on-field journalists themselves having little or no training in undertaking investigative journalism.

 And this is why the film’s main character Hiba Afify is all the more remarkable as she exhibits all the hallmarks of a competent, if not seasoned, journalist committed to reporting unfolding events from the flash pointsas she witnesses them on the ground.

Words of Witness is more than your typical documentary film. It does not only explore the political nature of media reporting at a time of seismic political transformation. It also weaves into the story and in equal measure the personal story of a young female journalist who defies not only social and political norms but also her own family’s restrictions and over-protective directives. Youth, gender and social media have been the key ingredients of the Arab Spring, and Words of Witness provides a vivid insight into how they combined to defy political repression, gendered cultural norms and social stigmatisation.