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In Mideast, Media Caught Between Two Extremes

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Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, there has been little doubt that enhanced access to information and news contributed to political and social activism, pushing the boundaries of free speech, even for a short period of time, to beyond anything that had been seen regionally.

Today, however, there has been a regression in media growth and censorship shows little signs of receding. Media and free speech in the Middle East today are caught between two extremes: radical extremists and government crackdown.

Free speech and journalism are vital tools to inform the public and hold governments accountable. It gives citizens a medium to ask for their rights. When they feel threatened, dictators and extremists take away freedom of speech because it's the platform to ask for all other rights like access to information, justice, rule of law and better economic conditions.

When ISIS extremists took over the town of Raqqa last year in northern Syria one of the first things they announced was that any political opposition to ISIS was banned.

Media and freedom of speech are inevitably intertwined.

Indeed, momentum for political reform was catalyzed by the regional uprisings in 2011 but for the most part it produced a reactionary crackdown on media freedom, with a particular focus on the Internet.

Since 2011, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria witnessed Internet shut downs. In Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain bloggers were arrested.

One of the reasons some youths in the region took to the streets across the region three years ago was because their economic and political systems were no longer tolerable. Today, answers to these demands have stalled, if not regressed. They will not go away either.

As a member of Leaders of Tomorrow, a youth led organization based in Jordan, I have seen over 400 people gather earlier this year in the historical city of Petra to debate local politics. One year ago, over 1000 people from all walks of life gathered in downtown to discuss press and publications laws.

Political development is an element of stability but in the short term it is on the sliding scale of US interests. It seems the international community is even willing to see development and reform -- including media reform -- in the Middle East repressed if they believe states like Egypt are going to produce short-term stability.

Despite Egypt's crackdown on journalists, civil society organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood, US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced strong support for Egypt's new president and signaled that the US administration would continue with the flow of military aid.

Still, since 2011, utilizing social networking sites as venues to have debates on social issues, and to influence public opinion pushed the boundaries of free speech beyond anything seen so far. In the past years, mainstream news outlets in the region continued to steer away from serious political scrutiny, the task was left to the burgeoning social media sector where the boundaries between news, comment, and activism had been dismantled.

In early 2011, in Jordan, there were successful digital campaigns on environmental and social issues, including an online petition in 2011 to save over 2,000 trees, marked for felling to make way for a new military academy. The campaign achieved a postponement of the project. In doing so, it became a symbol of the empowering potential of digital activism, especially when combined with offline initiatives and actions.

Digitization has made it difficult for governing regimes to prevent Arabs from seeking stories and news content about their community and country from social media and online news. By using Facebook to interact and join groups, Twitter to join debates and find links and having access to Internet sites across the world, it is now nearly impossible to prevent them from gathering news and information.

But digital divides and censorship remain significant obstacles to building outreach and awareness. The spread of social media as a key vehicle for information sharing has also meant that certain communities off the grid have been excluded from the benefits of technological media.

In June 2013, the government in Jordan blocked access to more than 250 news websites under new legislation causing local protests. What seems clear is that since 2011, media reform in the region has become embedded in the wider struggle for political change.

Self-censorship may also be spreading among citizen journalists, bloggers and online reporters. During a recent press conference to announce the cancellation of his comedy show, Bassem Youssef, Egypt's satirist declared: "The Program doesn't have a space. It's not allowed."

Today many citizens in the region are also looking around and see failed uprisings filled with sectarian bloodshed. They seek stability and safety; emboldened governments are passing restrictive press legislation and the underlying grievances that spurred the 2011 uprisings are buried yet once again.