'Arab Spring' still blooms

Submitted on Tue, October 4, 2011

Much has been written about the role of blogs and social networking sites in fuelling the Arab revolution last spring. Digital media helped mobilize protestors, promote information exchange locally and abroad and eventually led to the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Then, predictably, the rest of the world lost interest. But there are signs that Arab Spring has catalyzed a powerful wave of media innovation and a new cadre of citizen journalists that promises to reshape the way people in the region get, share, and use information for generations to come.

One indicator: the remarkable turnout of entrants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for ’ Citizen Media: A Global Innovation Competition . Over 30 entries were received from Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere. In fact, we saw more entries from the region than any other competition before.

These media strategies run the gamut – from crowdsourcing to journalist training to Storify-like narrative platforms. Many are truly exciting. And most of the Citizen Media entrants wrote that the Arab Spring motivated them to launch their initiatives. Here are some of the inspiring and compelling entries we’ve received:

A Digital Newsroom where Journalists and Citizens in the Arab World Can Work Together proposes that CJs are trained by professional journalists from Egypt’s mainstream media. Citizen journalists will learn how to track, corroborate, tag and publish high-quality citizen content from across the country. The team hopes that the depth of reporting found in citizen media can be fine-tuned and amplified to seek the attention of the mainstream media audience. This, in turn, can lead to a broader and deeper understanding of events in the country, and raise accountability of those responsible for organizing the upcoming elections.

Many entries include a training component for citizen media, namely news writing, reporting, critical thinking, ethics, and producing multimedia content. MidEast Youth’s CrowdVoice.org - Tracking Voices of Protest seeks to provide a platform for people to upload videos of protest demonstrations anywhere in the world. On CrowdVoice.org, users create topics for current issues and demonstrations while others can curate the content on these issues from various sources like news websites, blogs, videos, photos, media and sources in the field.

WASLA Project volunteers in Egypt are conducting media workshops for people living in marginalized areas, refugees and people with special needs with the simple, yet all-important goal of lending them a voice. A similar initiative is Mandara – Your Window to Upper Egypt . Still in the idea phase, the Mandara website is dedicated to populations living in Upper Egypt, a historically marginalized area, in the run-up to the presidential elections.

And Small World News is training citizens in conflict-ridden countries like Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005. Alive in Libya is aimed at Fostering Critical Journalism in New Libya and allows Libyans to tell their own stories without filters applied by the foreign press which currently controls information flow to and from the country. Founders Brian Conley and Louis Abelman share how they worked at a feverish pace to identify emerging citizen journalists (including a music blogger, a professional translator and an English teacher) and gave them a three-day crash course in journalistic ethics, news reporting, editing and producing online digital content. At one point, the duo was forced to flee Libya to evade Gaddafi forces. Their local team took over and within two weeks, the Alive in Libya website produced over 25 video segments, with footage from the executions of Gaddafi’s mercenaries to short documentaries on Red Crescent refugee camps. Since March 2011, Alive in Libya has published over 400 videos and articles, including not only original content from the Benghazi team, but also content curated and enhanced by other citizen journalists in Libya.

There are signs that the Citizen Media movement in the Arab world is moving beyond news and protests to other topics as well. For instance, Iranian Stories is creating a web archive of photographs, videos, documents, and verbal testimonies from those who participated the Iranian uprising in 2009. In Israel, “Round-Table” Making People More Involved In Their Own Communities By Learning Alternative Knowledge envisions a website where people can participate in discussions, exchange information, debate and harness online encounters into real activism at the local and national level. Economics, not politics, is intended to be the thrust of this initiative.

From these entries, it appears there is little innovation in terms of technology. Most innovators use existing digital technology to empower fellow Arabs through training and thus contribute to change in their society. Yet, their ingenuity lies in how they build previously untapped human networks through crowdsourcing.

Until recently, few had thought that a citizen media movement would advance and refine itself to such a degree in the middle-east - a region not associated with freedom of speech, let alone an independent media. It will be worth following-up on how these innovations evolve once the political heat dies down. Sustainability will be another challenge in a crowded and rapidly changing digital world. However, now that barriers to the entry of citizen media in the region are broken, there’s only one direction to go: forward.

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