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ROME, May 10 2011 (IPS) - Was Al Jazeera the key factor in the fall of the governments in Egypt and Tunisia, in the protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, and Syria, and in the rebellion in Libya? I don’t think you can make this claim: the changes arose not from communications but objective conditions, though communications played a powerful role.

After fifteen years of activity, Al Jazeera now reaches an audience of 200 million viewers. Vast numbers of Arab families were glued to the network to follow the unfolding of events in the region. It was and is a factor in the proliferation of the messages and opinions of a largely muzzled public and of information about the events and accusations (of repression and corruption) that the regimes of the region covered up or distorted.

In these years, it has already managed to broadcast a different message than other television networks in the region. The director of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, defines this message as one that is identified with universal values and that might inspire a new culture, especially among the young generations. According to Khanfar, the political tsunami of the last few months was largely carried out by the youth, which make up 60 percent of the Arab population and were completely marginalised.

Testimony from these countries has shown that the majority of citizens turned to Al Jazeera for news despite efforts to weaken or block its signal, interfere with its satellites, attack its journalists, and destroy its offices.

Khanfar tells how one night he was having dinner in Doha when he received a call from Tahrir Square in Cairo, epicentre of the Egyptian protests, asking him not to turn off the cameras then filming because the military was ready to attack but was holding off until reporters stopped broadcasting.

The full coverage of the protests would not have been possible if the protesters themselves hadn’t sent out their images and footage in areas where reporters were not able to do so.

This, combined with social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and others, constitutes a formidable information-gathering system in the direst of conditions.

The combination of these media with Al Jazeera, which is powerful and growing rapidly stronger, compounds their impact. It is clear from this that there is no incompatibility between traditional media and the new media, which can merge in what is called “integrated communication”.

This new form of communication quickly spread beyond the area of the protests, especially to neighbouring countries. Sultan Saoud Al Qassimi, a blogger of the United Arab Emirates, said that when he wrote about the events in the countries in conflict, his readership jumped from 5,000 to 25,000.

Egyptian activist Asma Mahfouz states that the social media were not discovered at the last minute as the protests exploded but had already been enlisted as alternative modes of communication given that the traditional media ignored the concerns of the people. She said that there was a jump in intensity after the clearly fraudulent September 2005 elections when President Hosni Mubarak was re-elected by a unprecedented 88.6 percent majority.

The protests were led by the middle classes, which had access to the Internet, the backbone of the communications media. Young protesters revealed how that Facebook made them more confident and gave them a feeling of strength.

The importance of self-esteem was stressed by former Brazilian president Lula at an Al Jazeera forum in Doha in mid-March. At a meeting with Arab bloggers he noted that self-esteem was an essential factor in the overthrow of Latin American dictators. Lula stated that democracy means patience and respect, including for the most critical opinions “because when a leader considers himself irreplaceable and thinks his opinions are the only valid ones, he runs the risk of turning into a dictator.”

Malek Khadroui, a Tunisian blogger, explained that many of his compatriots did not believe in these instruments, but “we learned to use them in a different way than previous generations”. He said that the opposition had used the Internet in the 90s, though only to get information and not as a means of organisation and participation. Khadroui also noted how in the final phase of the dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt, the regimes tried to use the new media to counter the protesters “but failed because they didn’t have confidence in them”.

In recent months the management of Al Jazeera has given a lot of thought to the question of whether the changes in the region might allow for the building of a different future in which the newly-erupted digital culture will have a permanent presence and the social media will help define a new role for the community and a new identity, and perhaps spur change in the hands of a new generation that is better connected, better educated, and inspired by universal values.

Maybe Hillary Clinton was right when she said that we are in the middle of an information war in which the US is losing and players like Al Jazeera are winning. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Mario Lubetkin is Director-General of IPS news agency.

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