In 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, a day dedicated to the rights and protection of journalists. Although 1993 was not too long ago, it was during the down days of dial-up Internet. The days before Twitter, before Facebook, before the Arab Spring -- some say the hallmark effect of the power of social media. Days where the word press used to mean journalists. And now, nearly 20 years later, press could mean my mom and her Facebook in Jersey. Everyone has the freedom to click their opinion.
It sounds strange, but in her case, this new freedom is good. She's Iraqi. And she can let the world know our family in Baghdad is still pretty pissed off about not have having a functioning existence. Although in other people's cases, such a freedom not such a good thing -- I don't need to know you had a yummy sandwich.
Either way though, the rights of press -- all press -- do need to be protected. And a lot of times, they're not.
During a briefing at the U.N. titled "New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies," Delphine Halgand, director of Reporters Without Borders spoke of "netizens" -- citizens who express themselves on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter -- who were brutally murdered for expressing themselves in places where eating a sandwich does not classify as a status update. Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a dynamic and charismatic young journalist and news producer, spoke of how during his early days at Al-Jazeera he discovered the stirrings of unrest in Tunisia using Skype, Twitter and his broken North African Arabic and French.
We are in a Digital Age. This is 21st century politics. Information is now carried in all sorts of ways. And although this may be true, a futuristic description of what is to come, I'm just not quite sure what all that really means -- for regular people, anyway. Yes, now we can get information in all sorts of ways. But I have to wonder, is information enough?
Information. Freedom. Perhaps I am spoiled with freedom and way too much information, as I am a young person in America. Although this often dilutes my Iraqi blood, it does not completely wash it all away. Because during this conference, I felt my freedoms were certainly infringed upon. Although I didn't want to throw my shoe at anyone, I was pretty close.
Because the worst thing, in my mind, about any sort of panel discussion -- especially one so lively and inspiring -- is the point where it goes public. When regular people, in this case from all sorts of NGOs and other similar organizations, get to ask regular questions. I know that this should be a good thing -- it was freedom day, after all -- but the reality of freedom day is that many people, too many, don't know really know how to use it.
I am sure they were passionate; I think, I hope. Although really, I'm not sure what about. Because what often happens in stuffy conference rooms is that people ultimately talk about themselves. And their yummy sandwiches.
Which is why I wondered why more young people weren't there. Or more Arabs at the very least. Because wasn't it the Arab Spring that ignited the debate over the importance of social media in politics in the first place?
But when I think about it, perhaps the lack of a young Arab presence, save Shihab-Eldin, is because social media in the West isn't exactly what it is in the East. Not at this point in history, anyway. In America, Facebook and Twitter are just more ways to communicate, more tools with their own set of social rules. Twitter for this, Facebook for that. But in the Arab world it is something entirely different.
The Arab world, as complex as it is, is a world where information has been used as a tool -- leaders have kept societies in a certain place and in some cases, a certain time. That's something that we're only now beginning to see. Not understand yet. But see.
At the U.N., I for one have seen videos from Syria I'd rather not see. And these videos of violence are not from traditional news networks -- as journalists are not yet entirely welcome -- but from the citizens themselves. Because oddly enough, in America, we don't get the real story. Or rather, the full story.
New media may tell us something that traditional media does not or is not able to do. But in the end, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are actually really nothing at all, without the people who use them.