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Embrace YouTube

Former Al-Jazeera anchor Lina Zahr Ad-Din is coming out with a new book that says the largest Arab news network’s standards have depreciated because of reliance on YouTube videos. I don’t think she could be more wrong, especially in the Arab world.

What good is authentication when governments knowingly manipulate the media and citizens? And, for that matter, those governments bar access to citizens in the form of limiting free speech, especially that which is critical of the government.

Arab governments have long placed restrictions on media — in Syria, foreign journalists are banned and much of the reporting has come from Lebanon — so YouTube videos and tweets from the Arab street are the only way to get the other half of the story. Many times — especially now — it is the only way to get the story at all.

From Angry Arab News Service:

 She says that most of the coverage is now driven from YouTube clips and that in the old days, editors at Aljazeera would not even allow use of YouTube footage unless verified and checked and authenticated.

Ad-Din is stuck in the past with her idea of journalism. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media have bridged the gap between oppressive governments, free speech and the media. Al-Jazeera was lauded for the first major news organization to embrace this, and it helped spur the Arab Spring. Good riddance to Ad-Din.

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Arab world needs a Rosie the Riveter

A new book on how Arab media portrays women is coming out at the right time as Arab nations undergo political change that should make governments more responsible to people and, hopefully, give women a stronger and more equal voice in the national dialogue.

Social media has helped give Arab women a voice they never had before. While picketing is visible to any passerby and therefore easily discouraged by Arab men who view the home as the woman’s role in society, social media protesting occurred secretly.

But visibility is arguably the single greatest chance for changing society. If women want a greater role in Arab society, they will have to be treated as equal in the media. Media represents a society’s shared community of ideas, and those ideas are disseminated throughout the day through media. Women in the workplace and, in general, as men’s equals, need to become part of that message.

The book, based on empirical research, looks at how international readers think Arab media portrays media. The idea is that historically, Arab media has treated women as passive, veiled observers. They have been reactionary commentators on policies designed by patriarchal and religious rulers.

But how can this be changed? The first step, in my opinion, should be through giving women a greater presence in media depictions of the workplace.

A 2002 UN report showed that women were receiving better, yet still stereotypical portrayal in Arab media:

Advertisements featuring women in the Arab world nowadays are often showing women as
submissive wives happily using the products being sold.  So the camera focus has turned toward
a different, but still stereotypical direction.  As noted by media specialist researchers, there is too
much focus on housewives and too little attention given to working women.

Arab media should take the Rosie the Riveter approach if it is to push the idea of women being equal to men in the workplace. Of course, that iconic image was US propaganda designed to draw women to the workplace while men served overseas in World War II. That image attracted many women to work side by side with men in factories and jump started the role of women in the workplace. Obviously that battle continues in the US, with women earning 77 cents for every dollar men receive. But Arab countries need to start somewhere, and lending a more positive image to women — putting them in more advertisements depicting working people is a good idea — in advertising is step one.

The Arab world needs a Rosie the Riveter

I don’t believe most Arab states are ready to push such an image, and given rampant unemployment in the Arab world I don’t believe they are in the position to do so. The US had an employment problem of the best kind — it had to fill positions — but Arab nations are having a difficult time creating jobs for thousands of young university graduates.

It certainly wasn’t American society that was ready for women in the workplace — the economy demanded it. With women receiving the vote just 20 years before, I have a hard time believing the US push for women in the workplace would have organically proceeded at such a pace without WWII.

That’s the conundrum in the Arab world. A good portion of the Arab world from the government down to the street may not be ready for Rosie the Riveter. Many Arab nations are based on “traditional roles,” many of which are (mis)guided by a fundamentalist capitulation of the Qur’an, making portraying women in the workplace not only difficult but ideologically impossible.

The Arab world needs its own Rosie the Riveter, regardless of the economic and employment conditions. If governments want to micromanage, they could offer tax credits to companies that advertise with women in the workplace — or give tax credits simply for hiring women.

It may take a paradigm shift for such initiatives to get started. The Arab Spring is that paradigm shift. If patriarchal, fundamentalist-leaning governments fall, there’s a greater chance for them to be democratically replaced by pragmatic politicians who understand women need a greater role in society.

Morocco protests as main protest groups wonders about future

Late to the party, it now seems some US media outlets are giving Morocco’s February 20 movement some press. Too bad the kingdom already passed constitutional reforms by a 98.5 percent vote.

Thousands of Moroccans flooded the streets of Casablanca and Rabat to protest the constitutional reforms. And with a 98.5 percent approval rating, I have some doubts over whether those numbers are legitimate. There’s no doubt the reforms were going to pass — newspapers lauded the reforms, and the King orchestrated a public relations campaign to push the reforms — but there was certainly a larger contingent of politically aware reform opponents than the 1.5 percent that shot down the proposed reforms.

But all this media attention and burst of protests came at the wrong time. The right time would have been before voting on reforms, when the movement could have had some influence. The vote on constitutional reforms was an overwhelming referendum on King Mohammed’s rule. That will make the King too difficult for the February 20 Movement to topple.

The February 20 movement is a precarious lot. Formed by leftist secularists and Islamists, it’s an unlikely coalition that seized on the Arab Spring.

I’ve written about how Morocco’s reforms do not go far enough and about the lack of media coverage on the reforms’ shortcomings. I mentioned that the interval between announcing reforms and voting on them was too short for a strong opposition movement to coalesce and reach the masses.

The February 20 movement was certainly organized, but in a relatively stable nation like Morocco its message was muted. Now, aside from a few protests here and there, its chance to make big changes in Morocco might be gone — although it certainly is the organization to thank for the incremental ones made this year.

From Issandr El Amrani of arabist.net, for the The National:

With the monarchy having won the first round by upstaging protesters and focusing on constitutional reform, many now wonder what the future of the movement will be. “We’re back to February 19,” says one member. Some predict its Islamist and secularist components will have increasing difficulty working together.

But others are less gloomy: they are content, for now, with the knowledge that without their movement, the government would have not even thought that a new constitution was necessary or released political prisoners in recent months. Nor would have new online publications, often run by exiled dissident journalists, cropped up to serve the new interest in political commentary. Whatever the future of February 20, if political life finally shows some signs of activity, Moroccans will have this unlikely coalition to thank.

Arab Spring is not the same as post-USSR

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who spent years covering the post-USSR transition to democracy, wrote last week that Arab Spring nations need to rush to the polls in order to seize the democratic moment. She compared her experiences in post-USSR nations to what is occurring in the Arab world. But her basis for comparison is flawed. As I argue below, Arab Spring elections should delay until fledgling political parties form because the democratic conditions regarding the Arab Spring are not similar to post-USSR Central and Eastern European nations.

First, the USSR represented a top-down style of governance that affected a dozens of territories that would later become free and independent nations. That impacted local political organizational structure in the sense that Kazakhstan, Ukraine, etc. did not have local governing bodies with any tangible effect on the economy, welfare, etc. That is simply not the case with Arab Spring nations, which already have developed strong networks of political organization that would not have been possible in the USSR.

Second, the USSR was a centralized economy. The new nations borne out of the USSR’s downfall opened their economies partially because they wanted to become part of an increasingly integrated world, but they were not prepared for the shocks of misplaced resources and productive inefficiency when they opened their borders. The USSR, by being such a large region and keeping commerce within its borders, could subsidize and artificially sustain failing industries. The new nations quickly discovered most of their technology was so old and the cost of production so high that they were not economically viable in the open market.

Arab Spring nations’ products have operated in the free market for years, although much of these nations’ revenues come from oil. Still, even having that resource is something post-USSR nations did not have, and therefore it is up to Arab citizens to democratically elect the representatives they feel will best handle those oil revenues — whether that means setting up a more comprehensive welfare system, using it to create business tax credits or other initiatives. Most Arab Spring nations have at least some semblance of free markets and politicians therefore must make decisions whether to keep those markets open, open them further or close them. All of these are economically philosophical questions that require debate and dialogue between established parties, and it’s a dialogue that did not exist in the nascent post-USSR days.

Third, while Arab nations’ press freedoms are certainly limited by U.S. standards, they are by far and away more developed than the former USSR. Noting this, there is a greater window for press debate of party positions and philosophy prior to voting in democratic elections in Arab Spring nations than there were in post-USSR nations. Arab Spring nations have seized the benefits of social media, and it would be a shame if those nations stopped short of allowing the press to analyze and discuss party platforms prior to these democratic elections.

Fourth, and final for now, post-USSR nations had no existing foreign policy legacy once that nation dissolved whereas Arab nations are entangled in a variety of agreements with other Arab nations, the West (usually over oil and Israel) and emerging economies such as India and China (also for oil). Foreign policy will be an enormously important issue for Arab voters, where doctrines and agreements could be jeopardized, reversed or enhanced based on whichever party wins the majority. This has serious implications for Israel and the shifting geopolitical power structure concerning relations with China and India relative to a somewhat declining U.S.

As Moroccans vote on constitution, little discussion of reforms’ weaknesses

July 1, 2011 1 comment

Moroccan King Mohammed’s proposed reforms will be adopted following today’s vote with much fanfare and little analysis of the broad powers he will retain.

By rushing the referendum to the people the King was able to avoid an organized PR or protest campaign against the reforms.  The government launched an aggressive PR campaign of its own, and it certainly has better resources (ie: money, experienced staffers and organizational structure) than any protest movement. It took less than a month for the announcement of reforms to today’s vote — hardly enough time for any opposition movements to form and direct public dialogue.

Moroccan news outlets and various organizations have supported King Mohammed’s proposed constitutional reforms, which were voted on today. BBC and Washington Post have viewed the reforms positively. BBC said it will make Morocco “the first constitutional monarchy in the Arab world.” Truthfully, there’s a lot to like about these reforms, and that has people talking. But there’s been little to no mention of some of the reforms’ problems, which I have discussed here.

I believe the lack of reporting on dissenting opinions is a reflection on the inability to spread information. There was no time to organize or come up with a clear and impacting way to convey the message that the King holds onto enormous power with these reforms.

Chiefly, the King still has power over the military and religious spheres. He also will continue to appoint ambassadors and diplomats, effectively keeping foreign policy under his dominion. He also can dissolve parliament after consulting with a special committee, of which he would have appointed half the members.

The reforms are ultimately a good thing for Morocco, as it gives the prime minister and parliament more power.  News outlets have reported as much. News outlets can only report what they can observe, which was overwhelming support for the reforms. I think, however, that if this vote came in August that there would have been a stronger opposition once more information about the reforms’ weaknesses could be disseminated.

Media quiet on Jordanian protests

June 29, 2011 1 comment

Jordanian protests have largely gone unreported by the U.S. media. Most likely it has something to do with the good relations Jordan had with the U.S. and the Hashemite Kingdom’s quiet border with Israel — because, let’s be real here, the U.S. was late to denounce Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak because of foreign policy implications with Israel.

Jordanian protests have not reached Egypt levels, which would be tough to do considering about half of the Jordanian population are Palestinians with very few rights to begin with — despite being such a large portion of the country, Palestinian representation in parliament is at its lowest ever at 12 percent. I can’t imagine much solidarity between Jordanians and Palestinians when it comes to calling for a new government, although they may both want the same thing. But if they do get the same thing, that means Palestinians could more equal representation and become an enormous bloc of the Jordanian parliament. That’s reason enough for Jordan to balk at true reform.

Ministers have resigned. Legislation curtailing media freedom has been introduced. The prime minister was cleared of a corruption charge despite being implicated in a parliamentary report. The government has been slow to act on promised reforms. There is fear prolonged protests will lead to Islamist gains.

Protests are happening. Corruption is happening. Read about it here, from Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif on ArabNews.com:

Jordan is locked in a vicious circle that threatens to deepen the current political and economic crises. The government headed by Marouf Bakhit is being chocked by scandals, resignations and public accusations that it is incapable, or unwilling, to carry out dire political reforms in response to royal directives and public demands.

On Monday the Lower House voted to exonerate the prime minister from charges relating to circumstances under which a casino license was granted to a foreign investor in 2007, when Bakhit headed his first government. Fifty-three deputies voted against him, but the motion was defeated even though a parliamentary report had implicated the prime minister. It was the latest in a series of political crises which have bedeviled the Jordanian government.

Last week Minister of Information Taher Adwan dealt a heavy blow to the government by resigning his post over what he described as amendments hostile to media freedom being introduced to laws that will be presented to the Lower House in spite of the Cabinet’s objections. He warned of forces that are trying to push Jordan toward a dangerous path.

Adwan’s walkout came two weeks after two other ministers resigned apparently over the case of convicted Jordanian businessman, Khaled Shaheen, who was allowed to leave the country earlier this year supposedly to seek medical treatment in the United States. Shaheen’s case became the force behind public protests across the kingdom driving accusations against the government of complicity in one of the most controversial corruption cases in recent times.

The government has initially defended its decision to allow Shaheen to leave his deluxe prison cell on humanitarian reasons, but under media and public pressures, the prime minister later admitted that there have been irregularities in the handling of the case.

Since public protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out earlier this year, Jordan has been witnessing weekly demonstrations and sit-ins across the country demanding major political reforms and a strong crackdown on official corruption. Most of the government’s mega projects of the past few years have been blemished by accusations of corruption including a royal initiative to provide affordable housing to the country’s poor, and allegations concerning certain deals by an independent government corporation, Mawarid, an investment arm for the army, which is involved in a major development project in the heart of Amman.

The two most pressing issues for Jordanians today are political reforms and fighting corruption. Both are interrelated and both are believed to be connected to the bad economic situation in the country. In response to the first, and after weeks of protests, King Abdallah announced that the government has been instructed to oversee political reforms, especially with regard to introducing new elections and political parties laws.

A National Dialogue Committee, appointed by the prime minister and headed by Speaker of the Upper House Taher Al-Masri, met for almost two months and finally approved two pieces of draft legislations. It was boycotted by Jordan’s powerful Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Still the proposed laws were received with enthusiasm by the public and the media. The king said the government will refer the laws to Parliament for approval and in few years Jordanians will be able to elect their own government.

But after almost a month of submitting the draft laws, the government is yet to take action. It is now believed that the laws will be presented to Parliament in its next ordinary session this November. Meanwhile, another committee, appointed by the king, is yet to deliver its report on constitutional amendments. Political parties, especially the Islamists, have been calling for major changes to the constitution limiting the king’s powers and establishing a parliamentary monarchy.

The issue is a contentious one. Young Jordanians rallying under a movement calling itself the 24 March Youth were beaten and attacked by an unidentified mob when they lifted slogans calling for a constitutional monarchy in Jordan three months ago. The government denied any involvement and promised to investigate.

Another showdown took place in the eastern city of Zerqa two months ago when had-liners took to the street demanding freedom for their detained relatives. They clashed with the police and many were seriously injured from both sides. The hard-liners continue to march especially after a royal pardon issued recently failed to include members of their movement.

The fact that the government of Bakhit is embroiled in scandals makes it difficult for it to maintain credibility in the street, especially with regard to its ability to carry out political reforms. Jordanians are calling for its resignation and are appealing to the king to speed up reforms and defuse tension.

Pundits believe there are three forces working against each other in the Jordanian street today. The first is the conservative security apparatus, backed by old guard politicians, which is against adopting major political reforms for fear that they will benefit the Islamists. The second is the Islamist force, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is allied with other opposition groups. They are trying to pressure the palace to accept these reforms, fire the government and call for new elections. But there is a third force and that is the youth who are calling for a constitutional and other reforms but do not necessarily see themselves aligned with the Islamists. This last group is growing and gaining support as it becomes active in the street and on social media sites.

There is no doubt that the king is in favor of calculated reforms, but battling these forces is no easy task. In the absence of organized political parties, the common view is that the Islamists stand to gain the most in the future. Jordan is now at a crossroad and the street is frustrated with an impotent government, weak economy and allegations of widespread corruption. Unless concrete moves are made soon the pressure will continue to build up.

Syria’s tyranny of the minority

Syria’s current governance problem can be explained from the ground-up argument that its civil society is much to blame for Bashar al Assad’s gross abuse of power.

First, let’s get some facts out of the way: Syria “continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel ban,” has repeatedly tortured civilians, is ranked 173 of 178 countries for freedom of the press, has systematically discriminated against certain ethnic groups and has been ruled by one family under martial law since 1963.

Syria’s government right now, however, can be classified by a simple analogy — Assad’s party and confidants are like the scrawny kid who got picked on all throughout middle school. But sometime over summer vacation their voices dropped a few octaves, they got taller, lifted some weights and now have a bloodthirst for vengeance.

Assad is an Alawite, which make up less than 10 percent of the Syrian population. Sunni Muslims, which comprise a majority of Syria, consider Alawites heretical, as their highly secretive beliefs incorporate forms of Christianity and other religions. Alawis, for example, celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Before the Assad-led Baath Party came to power in 1963, Alawis were relegated to a lower rung of Syrian society, stripped of most legal rights and often taking menial labor jobs. But then Hafez al Assad came to power, consolidated the military under his control and placed Alawites in top military positions to secure loyalty.

Bashar al Assad is reportedly stirring the sectarian pot — many believe Assad is trying to frame the violence in Syria as a sectarian outbreak, which would keep his minority Alawite group in Assad’s control for fear of persecution should the Assad regime fall. Assad has spun this scenario and forged allegiance from top military officials as a result.

Alawites are no longer persecuted as they were in the pre-Assad days, but that doesn’t mean Alawites have distanced themselves from that memory. It is unlikely Assad would give up power anyway, and clinging to that time long ago when Alawites were mere housemaids will help him maintain some semblance of support.

At the core of this paranoid power struggle is a civil society and national history that have both failed to protect minorities. During the United States’ nascent years, the founding fathers wrote about “tyranny of the majority” because the colonists were oppressed by an entrenched group of people with longstanding institutions and history.

But in a nation like Syria that has a history of systematic discrimination against minorities and no stable institutions for checks and balances against abuse of power, the minority is more likely to abuse the seat of the throne.

Assad’s regime will fall eventually, there is no question. The only way to prevent something like that from happening again, however, is to ensure no long history of abuse, discrimination or prejudice ever exists again. Preventing rising resentment among ethnic or religious groups will allow Syria’s citizens to come together and draft a system of checks and balances against power. There is certainly incentive to do that now that Syrians can see what can happen when the wrong people have too much power.

Trust is part one. There must be a mutual desire between all ethnic groups in Syria to come to the negotiating table. Given the decades of sectarian framing from the Assad family, that will be quite difficult. But in doing so, coming together will drastically reduce the chances of a tyrannical minority from coming to power.

 

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