When the winds of the Arab Spring blew across North Africa into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the people of Egypt gathered to tear down every symbol of the hated dictatorship: not just the government and its apparatuses, but the media organisations that had censored and selfcensored to further Mubarak’s rule for 30 years. But with so much happening so fast, the people still needed sources of news that was accurate, independent and, above all, a trustworthy account of what was going on around them.
The year before revolution swept through the Arab world, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as part of our mission to improve the standards of journalism around the world, had delivered extensive training for journalists in Egypt. As the situation escalated, a group of journalists from Cairo who had benefited from our training requested the support of the foundation to fill Egypt’s growing news vacuum. A team from London rushed back to Egypt, found funding and created Aswat Masriya, meaning “Voice of the People”, a website that brings quality, objective journalism in Arabic.
It was an instant success, and has received two million unique visitors in the last year alone. Aswat Masriya became the reference for those looking for facts, not propaganda.
The website has been such a success–and such an important source of information for ordinary Egyptians–that what was initially a one year project from the Thomson Reuters Foundation has quickly become part of the drive for democracy in Egypt. The demand for quality media is so real that we have decided to extend the project with renewed funding that will keep the site alive for at least two more years.
The people of Egypt had been starved of the truth for too long and were determined to make a change. The world watched as ordinary people helped our understanding of unfolding events via social media, uploaded images and SMS texts. Their voices were heard all over the world.
Aswat Masriya is a great example of information as aid. Its mission is to empower ordinary people and to give them the facts they need for their political action.
Traditionally, the news media has acted as a buffer between governments and their people, holding governments to account and keeping citizens informed about both progress and transgressions. Democracy itself demands that governments are monitored by media institutions. But creating an environment conducive to independent media is no easy task, requiring complex legislation, a highly professionalised journalist class and a sufficiently mature advertising sector.
For those of us in the international sector, all of this is only important in so far as it alleviates the suffering of the world’s poorest people and helps us to formulate policies to achieve that. We know how useful new media can be to an Egyptian protestor with a smartphone. But what about the starving child in Mali? Or the Burmese woman trafficked across borders to marry a man in China against her will?
As we approach 2015, the international dialogue around the Millennium Development Goals is changing. We are looking at what has worked and, perhaps most importantly for reasons of accountability and progress, what hasn’t. But who will we include in that discussion? Is a New York committee room the best place to decide what is best for the world’s poorest people? How will we be able to utilise social and emerging media to bring the voices of those most in need into the discussion–not just to measure progress, but also to inform each other about what is happening, why and when? Emerging media provides us with two-way channels of information that should be seen as tools of accountability.
For a new media revolution to be fully harnessed in the interests of true global development, we must ensure that all the voices of the South are brought into policy debates. With more citizens uploading videos or using Twitter to comment on the world around them, new media has arguably brought aid beneficiaries closer to policymakers. It is also challenging the traditional media’s tendency to put western commentators at the forefront of trusted analysis, while keeping voices from the ground on the sidelines, using them only for tone or as case studies.
Established news organisations like Thomson Reuters have an important role to play in this process. “Citizen journalism” is growing in importance and influence, but traditional media is still often the best placed to provide footage, images and insight.
These shifts have profound implications for the way people consume information– bypassing traditional media–and hint at an unprecedented new role for specialist media, a lot of which may not subscribe to the core journalistic values we take for granted.
Paradoxically, perhaps, it also hints at an even greater need for traditional media to act as a kind of trusted filter. This is what the Thomson Reuters Foundation is attempting to achieve with our training programme of journalists in Egypt after the revolution, and elsewhere around the world.
Media has certainly changed forever. The gates of the fourth estate have been thrown wide open. Anyone may enter this hallowed ground, but in order to ensure that the debate remains both civil and useful we must agree on who can be heard and when.
Visit www.trust.org, the portal of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic wing of the multimedia news agency.
©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012