Media technology paved the way for revolution – the case of Egypt

Research from Örebro University is showing how the media and technology, if used in the right way, can evade censorship and control. Ahmed El Gody has in his doctoral thesis followed the development of information and communication technology in Egypt. He has studied the significance of technology for news desks but also for society in general and how it paved the way for the revolution.

Egypt takes the lead in the Arab world when it comes to media development. There are large numbers of newspapers and magazines, satellite TV channels, Internet and mobile phone users, and the country is known as the Hollywood of the Middle East due to its film and TV production. Theoretically the country also respects freedom of the press.

– But if you take a closer look, there are social codes that prevent full press freedom. Journalists do not criticise social values or the government without strong evidence. The government owns a large part of the media and appoints editors-in-chief and other key players. Despite the revolution, things are looking pretty much the same – the only difference is that the military council now has the role previously played by the president, says Ahmed El Gody, researcher in media and communication studies at Örebro University in Sweden.

Technology opened up for new possibilities

For ten years he has followed the work of three newspaper editorial offices in Egypt – one state-owned newspaper and two independent ones. In Egypt, the media's role has been to communicate the political and economic agenda of the government. From the mid-nineties and onwards, the government invested in setting up Internet cafés and subsidised computers and affordable Internet connections in order to reach as many people as possible with its information.

– But what they did not anticipate was that the new technology opened up for new possibilities. Studies show how Egyptians took the chance to change from the news channels controlled by the Egyptian state to freer media. For example, polls from 2007 show that only 3.9 per cent were watching the Egyptian national television channels while 88.4 per cent followed the news broadcasts from Al Jazeera, says Ahmed El Gody.

Up until 2005 however, Egyptian media and journalists did not seem to realise how important information and communication technology, ICT, actually was for their development. Newspaper content was identical to that which was published on the Internet. It was static and readers were not invited to participate. News reporting still had its focus on official sources and was controlled from the top in the same way as before.

Radical media change

During the presidential election in 2005 however, we saw tremendous change. ICT was used to expose false election results and to organise strikes. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter became important platforms.

– After 2005, the media has changed radically. Egyptian journalists began to use different Internet pages to avoid government control and to be able to write about politics, economics, human rights and social justice, says Ahmed El Gody.

– The media went from reporting only to being an active contributor to public debate and to exerting an influence on the political process. Prior to the large-scale demonstration on 25 January 2011, the independent newspapers encouraged readers via the Internet to go to the Tahrir Square to protest. By doing so, the freedom of speech boundaries were shifted and a parallel virtual system for information was created which not only stretched outside of the government's control, but was also put into practice in real life resulting in the Tahrir Square protests.

New kind of journalism

– In today's media climate, journalists and other media professionals should work together with their audience to achieve the best possible results. In Egypt, Internet-based radio, TV and news sites have together with blogs, activist home pages and citizen journalism found new ways in which to discuss politics, economics, human rights and social justice.

–For Egypt, this is a new kind of journalism which does not build on source material from the government but from ordinary people. Traditional rules for who sets the agenda are being challenged. A system of top-down control is turned upside-down. So the new technology thoroughly changes journalism, as well as the surrounding society.

Text: Linda Harradine
Photo: Örebro University
Translation: Charlotta Hambre-Knight