First Persian Gulf Media Forum signals stronger social media censorship

2013-10-14 12:26

The fast spreading use of social media throughout the Persian Gulf has seemingly prompted organisers of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) 21st meeting of information ministers to host a two-day media forum as part of the proceedings.

Entitled Mass Media and Telecommunications and their impact on National Security, the forum was the first of its kind for the GCC comprising of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The fact that the GCC meeting was hosted in Bahrain was seen by some analysts as ironic since Bahrain has, since the start of the Arab Spring, frequently cracked down on protestors and human rights activists who were making use of social media to air their views.

But as events unfolded during the two-day forum it became clear that it was business as usual for most of those who rule the Persian Gulf states. In the opening remarks of her address Bahrain’s Minister of State for Information Affairs, Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab referred to social media as “the weapon of fallacies and disinformation which could create dangerous repercussions to the detriment of the future of a country.” She asked whether the state has a right to protect itself from this “hazard?” She said because the information of the social media “weapon” is too difficult to validate, it may be easily transferred into a Trojan Horse to be utilised by those who advocate freedom of expression.

The Bahraini-regime’s growing concern over the power of social media not only in its own backyard, but across the Gulf, is understandable. Social media has been one of the four main drivers of change across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) leading up to the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in December 2011. The others were an unemployed youth, no political reforms and a lack of basic human rights for all citizens.

The globalisation of information and communications technology had a profound effect on the youth of Mena. In the first instance it made the world an increasingly small place, bringing the unemployed and oppressed youth in immediate contact with the Western worldview, including all the riches and freedoms it has to offer. Secondly, it connected young people to their counterparts in other states in Mena, making them realise that their suffering is universal and, more importantly, that a revolution is indeed possible and can lead to a change in government.

Some 150 GCC representatives attended the forum, ranging from academics and journalists, to information ministers. As could be expected the majority of ministers pushed for stricter social media regulations, whilst most journalists were against any form of censorship. Consensus was however reached over social media sites provoking sectarian violence in the guise of freedom of speech. Speakers agreed that education was key, rather than restrictive monitoring. Morals and values should be the guidelines for those who use social sites.

The outcome of the first official media forum in the Gulf has however been less than encouraging. On the face of it a forum was created where different stakeholders could engage to find a middle ground on the very important issue of the increasing influence of social media in the Persian Gulf. The outcome was more likely a forum which was utilised as a platform by the powers that be to rationalise forthcoming media restrictions. Ministers from various GCC member states made it clear that they favoured legislation to regulate the electronic media, and in particular the social media. Many already have restrictive media laws in place, and like Kuwait and Qatar are planning to tweak these to include the social media. Bahrain was commissioned to investigate the matter and report back with suggestions on how to manage the electronic media in the region.

Irrespective of the GCC’s plans the social media trend is continuing at a blistering pace in the Arab world with more than 10.8 million tweets per day in the region. As the host of the GCC meeting Bahrain’s social media users have soared to more than one million since the April 2013, accounting for more than half of its population. Saudi Arabia is the largest user of You Tube in the region and the Egyptians utilise Facebook the most.

In the national security versus social media debate the most important question remains: whose security is at stake, that of the State or that of the people.

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