By Hagit Limor, 2010-11 SPJ President | February 18th, 2011
Like many of you, I’ve been watching the revolution, first in Egypt, then spreading like wildfire through other hotspots in the Middle East.
It reaffirms a truth that can’t be contained forever. People want a voice. They want respect and equality, and that begins at home.
To those of us who’ve grown up under our version of democracy, a free press goes hand in hand with freedom of the people. That’s not necessarily the model Egypt and other budding democracies may embrace.
In many countries the only media is state-controlled. In Egypt, state television continued to broadcast government propaganda even as the world watched a different reality unraveling on the streets.
Al Jazeera reports this hasn’t changed significantly under military rule, that Hosni Mubarak’s appointees still run Egypt’s state media. It may be difficult for those who toiled under the former paradigm to be impartial today during the country’s transition to democracy. (Note: Al Jazeera is run by the ruling family of Qatar.)
It’s not like our government knows nothing of propaganda to the Arab world. Our tax dollars support Al-Hurrah TV, a U.S. government-sponsored channel that doesn’t broadcast in our own country, critics say because of our own regulations about the broadcasting of propaganda. Despite U.S. government protestations to the opposite, many Arabs call Al-Hurrah a huge bust. Rather than spreading a message of a free press that could serve as an example, they look at it as a symbol of the very opposite.
Still, no one can question the powerful role a free outside press played in the success of the Egyptian revolution. What started internally on Facebook and Twitter gained momentum when the world media parachuted in to shine a light. This is precisely why journalists are reporting beatings, arrests or other attacks in Bahrain, Libya, and Iran, as those countries’ rulers struggle to limit the information available to their own populace in the streets today.
Yet even if that populace emerges as the victor winning new freedoms, it may not demand a free press as we know it here. It may develop a hybrid, some new paradigm all its own. Perhaps those who served the government will step forward as a voice of the people. Perhaps new voices will emerge. It truly isn’t up to us to expect a replica of our system. Different cultures demand and embrace varying formats.
As one person watching from afar, I hope they consider as they re-form their nation, the lessons of what a free flow of information can achieve. Journalists who reported what they observed as opposed to what they were told unveiled the truth in the streets. That truth doesn’t belong only to those in power, be it a government, a party, a military, race or single gender. It belongs to all. That’s what defines democracy, no matter how you interpret its execution.