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Growing power of the new media.

Byline: Faisal Al Qasim, Special to Gulf News

Being totalitarian, dictators and despots think they can control everything. That is why they looked cocksure when they first heard of the new term "globalisation". Some of them went even further in their overconfidence. They derided the new globalised world in the belief that their own worlds will always remain unaffected. Due to their overreliance on suppression and tyranny, they mistakenly thought that nobody can threaten their tightly controlled domains. But, as Abdul Rahman Alkawakibi, the great author of The Traits of Despotism wrote, over a hundred years ago, despots have always lived in funny worlds of their own.

The world of dictatorships has never looked funnier as it does these days in countries which are trying to cover the face of the sun with a sieve. As we all know the media was the most important organ in the hands of totalitarian regimes. No wonder that the executors of military coups usually take control first and foremost of the radio and television premises in their countries, and they use them straight away to broadcast the so-called "first statement". But to their dismay, even the people living under despotic governments would no longer tune in to their national radios or TVs, as they lost confidence in them scores of year ago. They would instead tune in to the external media, which has been regarded by dictatorships as the most serious danger to their regimes yet.

But despots could still live with the new media broadcasting over satellites, as they could still control foreign correspondents entering their countries. They could also force a media blackout on events happening around them.

For instance, as things began to go out of control, following the revolt against the alleged poll rigging in the latest elections, Iranian authorities started imposing restrictions on foreign correspondents. They went even further to close down the offices of certain television stations working in Tehran. And some reporters faced hard times there.

Although the Iranians have become much more democratically advanced than most Arab countries, and, for that matter, should no longer be classified with the traditional tyrannies, they did not want anybody outside, or for that matter, inside Iran to know what was happening in the streets of the country, which certainly blemished their democratic awakening badly, and made them look undemocratic. They sadly succeeded in muzzling foreign reporters who feared for their lives, but they have forgotten that in the new world of globalisation everybody could become a publisher, or a reporter thanks to mobile phones and the internet.

Were it not for the new media, nobody would have really known what was taking place inside the country. It only took mobile phone holders to video the demonstrators, and then put their footage and rushes straigh t away on well-known internet sites such as Youtube or Flicker for millions of people to watch the world over. They could also write their reports on their blogs on Twitter and others.

Funnily enough, scores of television channels have relied on amateur reporters for their coverage of events in Iran. Mobile phones have played a great role in the recent Iranian upheaval. And thankfully no despots in the world can ever control people who like to video anything happening nearby. The security services can detain a young man using his mobile, but they certainly can not detain the thousands of people who have mobiles and are ready to use them.

Even if some countries blocked undesirable internet sites, it only takes a couple of people to spread the word. Thousands of people can now break in to forbidden or blocked sites, no matter how tough the censorship is.

It is true that external powers, especially those who are at odds with the Iranian government such as the US, have harnessed the internet and mobile networks to stir up trouble in Iran for their own purposes, but that should not minimise the importance of the new media in the struggle for freedom of expression.

The Iranian event has certainly opened new horizons for the new media to be part and parcel of the political changes simmering here and there. I am sure that the regimes ruling with an iron fist will now think twice, if not thrice, before resorting to brute force to deal with demonstrators or freedom fighters, because they know now that the new information technology is there to expose them very badly.

To sum up, those who are surfing against the tide of history can go on and on to fight a rear-guard action, but they are doomed to lose miserably sooner or later. They can combat globalisation for a while, but the latter will eventually throw them in the rubbish bins of history.


Dr Faisal Al Qasim is a Syrian journalist based in Doha.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jul 12, 2009
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