Monday, October 31, 2011

Are we being cheated? New Media for a Newer Middle East

First published at BIKYA MASR

Are we being cheated? New Media for a Newer Middle East

Let us imagine that we could hold a discussion panel in which we would be able to freely ask questions to deposed and deposable Arab dictators about what is it that they fear the most. The answer in almost every case would not be the United States, God or the threat of foreign intervention; almost univocally the answer would be: ‘We are afraid of the youth’.

It is no wonder that it has been them who have been most mercilessly clamped down everywhere from Libya to Bahrain; young people have been not only denied the opportunity to engage in building the future of their countries but in the course of Arab Spring, more than any other group, they have also been the main target of reactionary forces nearly everywhere the prospect of a revolt loomed close. They have been persecuted, arrested, tortured, put on trial in military courts, denied the most basic legal rights and ultimately brutalized, sodomized and murdered.

It is no one but young people who have stood as the symbol of the revolutionary efforts in the Middle East: Mohammed Bouazizi and Khaled Said, to cite only those who come to mind immediately. But it is not only them who have suffered under brutal regimes whose earlier ideological laziness has now turned into a frenzy of murder and repression; prisons all over the Middle East are crowded with Maikel Nabils and Khaled Saids and Feras Baqnas that bear so many names, so many nationalities, so many stories, so many lives and as a common denominator especially the tyranny that wants to make sure that young people do not have a voice, so that the struggle for freedom in the region is once again silenced for another generation yet.

In the course of a conversation with Egyptian liberal T. Fouad, he remarked that at one point he thought that the youth of Egypt were going to take over and that all of us, now adult professionals, would be thought passé, yet it is us, the same people, in the Middle East and elsewhere who are today blogging and writing and speaking for their lives. 

“The destiny of any nation at any given time depends on the opinion of its young people, those under twenty-five”, the words of German poet Goethe, resound through and through today truer than ever.

Looking in retrospective at the year of the Arab revolutions, it is an undeniable fact that it was the empowerment that the young in our midst received through the communicative possibilities enabled by the Internet age what made this new beginning possible, no matter how long is the road that lies ahead not only in creating a new age of politics but also in leaving behind the old era of authoritarianism, so deeply entrenched in the vast majority of people.

During the 16th annual conference of the Arab-US Association of Communication Educators “Digital and Media Literacy”, hosted by the Media Studies program at the American University in Beirut and running through this weekend, it was said that the three most important new online media outlets in the Arab world were Jadaliyya, Al-Akhbar English and Bikya Masr; all of which reach audiences far beyond the Middle East and are made possible through cooperative efforts that go beyond the boundaries of nation, race, religion, language and politics. Nearly all the contributors of these new sites, part of the independent media revolution, are young aspiring journalists and researchers from the Middle East and a small group of expats with a serious concern about the kind of critical thought that is necessary for lasting peace and true revolutions – there’s no revolution other than that of the mind, politics is always secondary to the spirit of peoples and their commitment to freedom.

While we read this with a great sense of achievement and pride and with great optimism about the future, it remains altogether true that the real makers, those who achieved the impossible, are not those who jumped on the wagon of the revolution before it was too late and now speaking at conferences and being showcased by all Western media as revolutionary icons; many of our best men and women, bloggers and activists, who believed in freedom and who worked tirelessly to change the spirit of the times, they remain imprisoned and silenced while counterrevolutionary efforts blended in with the sloppiness of many self-appointed political heroes move toward an endless repetitive cycle of the same folly that was apparently overthrown.

One of these men is Saudi blogger Feras Baqna who has been imprisoned since October 16 together with producer Hussam Al-Drewesh and cameraman Khaled Al-Rasheed. Their only crime was producing and airing an episode in their online show “We are being cheated” that dealt with poverty in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh and offered viewers a comparison between the life of Saudis in two different parts of the city, contrasting the complacent comfort of many with the outrageous poverty of so many others in one of the world’s richest countries, where yet poverty and absence of political freedom are as abundant as are reserves of oil.

Even though they had been summoned for a “brief” investigation that was expected to conclude only within few hours, they have been held in extended unlawful imprisonment without any charges being brought against them. It is difficult to think what case or what kind of charges could be made against these young men that will justify detention without a charge and the adamant refusal to provide them with legal advice. This situation however is not unfamiliar to many other countries in the region such as Bahrain, Syria and Egypt where people have been arrested and in many cases also tortured for no other reason than exercising their freedom of speech.

It is not only that they didn’t commit any crimes but also that they kindly brought to the attention of many the problem and offered politically viable solutions to the problem in a country that gives hundreds of millions of dollars in aids and gifts to friendly countries often not with the intention to bring relief to distraught people but to fuel violent crackdowns against uprisings and protests. These men were arrested only because they cared for their country and in doing so, they were part of the efforts of so many young people to renew the common world on fairer definitions of justice, solidarity and community.

As their extended and unlawful arrest goes almost into its third week and that little is known about the fate they will face, the Western friends of freedom have remained silent and so far we haven’t heard of any phone calls made by the champions of democracy and freedom all over the world to demand their immediate release. We are no longer surprised at the indifference of the so-called international community that has nothing of a community in it; their support for the struggles of Saudis has been shy when not silent and the mediocre coverage of mainstream media has done little to bring the case to relevant international organizations to act on for their release. This has been the case in nearly every uprising for which the response of those that invaded entire countries with the pretense of bringing freedom, has been as null as the freedom they have brought.

The government of Saudi Arabia has spared no efforts to make an example of them just like the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt did with Maikel Nabil. The only reason behind the imprisonment and uncertain fate of all these young men all over the region is nothing but the widespread fear on the part of the rulers about the newly found political power of young people. The message of Feras Baqna and his team, however, has not remained silent and over half a million people have watched the episode of “We are being cheated” about poverty in the oil-rich kingdom.

As the Arab Spring recedes into winter, it is timely for us not to forget that it is to these people like Feras Baqna and Maikel Nabil to whom we owe the real thrust of the new beginnings that so many are fighting for now, especially because they did it at time when in their countries nobody was ready to believe in possibility, let alone believe in the power of the human mind to liberate entire countries from tyranny.

It is at this time when independent Arab media outlets consolidate themselves in the eyes of the world as vehicles for knowledge, peace and justice that we ought not to forget our prisoners of conscience and there will be no reality to this enormous human struggle until each and everyone of them is free.  The only way to prove that we’re not being cheated after all is not to keep silent, because in the person of Maikel Nabil and Feras Baqna there’s also each and everyone of us. The next person arrested could be not only my neighbor and my friend, but eventually also my brother and myself.

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