Media and Political transformations in the Arab Spring



This Wednesday (15 May 2013) I will have the honour of introducing a documentary film ‘Words of Witness’ as it premieres as part of the Human Right Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF). The documentary was made in during the Egyptian uprising, by filmmaker Mai Iskander and follows Heba Afify, an online journalist reporting from the frontline 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.

Focussing 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 suffocating 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 through smart phones and new technologies, that ended up escaping this 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 liked. In part this due to the fact that there is a lack of genuine human capacity to undertake this mammoth task. And this starts with lack of relevant legislative frameworks, to the dearth of competent leadership of media, to the out-dated training provided in government colleges and to current on-field journalists themselves who had little or no training in undertaking investigative journalism.

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

Words of Witness is not a typical documentary film. It does not only explore political nature of media reporting at a time of seismic political shift, but also weaves into the story and in in equal measure the personal story of young female journalist who defies not only social and political norms but also her own family’s restrictions and over-protective directives.

Author Bio: Fethi Mansouri is Chair in Migration and Intercultural Research at the school of international and political studies, Deakin University