It is almost a century since the state borders that today divide the Middle East were drawn up. The shape of the region was negotiated behind closed doors and imposed by colonial powers without consulting its people. The impact of those deals still haunts the region and, many would argue, plays a central role in its instability.
Some of the states that emerged from the carve-up later championed independence and social development, while others adopted a conservative stance. But almost without exception they maintained a monopoly on information and communication, underpinned by control and censorship of the media. For many years dissent, criticism or even limited exposure of what was going on behind closed doors was crushed with the argument that “it is not the right time” and “we are in a development and liberation battle”. Such dissent and transparency would, the powers-that-be insisted, only “weaken unity and undermine the national interest”.
That case is still being made by governments across the Middle East and their international backers, as the region has erupted in demands for change. But their control of information – along with the wider western monopoly of international communication – has already been broken.
Over the past 15 years free media in the Middle East have gradually succeeded in breaking the official grip and started to reflect the frustrations and ambitions of the people of the region directly. Al-Jazeera was the first regional media network to break the freedom of information taboo. That came at a heavy price, including continuous conflicts with many regimes; the regular closure of our bureaux from Bahrain to Morocco; the arrest, torture and even killing of our journalists; and the sponsorship of smears and hostile rumours to corrode our credibility. The latest attempt to silence us took place last week when we were taken off air by the Egyptian government-owned satellite Nilsat.
That breaking of the information blockade by satellite TV has been hugely strengthened by the spread of new technologies. Even while states have tried to use them to enforce control, unexpected new opportunities have emerged: through the internet, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the youth of the region – as elsewhere in the world – have found a common voice. Mobile-phone cameras and amateur videos allow the world to see what is beyond the reach of professional TV cameras. With a simple memory stick, it has become possible to have massive leaks of information about what is being done in secret in the name of the people.
But, crucially, it is the increasingly powerful alliance between free mainstream media and new media – pioneered by al-Jazeera in the Middle East – that is today leading to the exponential spread of information to and from the region. Through intrepid social networking, images of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have gone from local villages to our global audience of more than 200 million. We were not only first, we were everywhere: deploying well ahead of the tipping points that everyone recognised.
We were with the crowds when they demonstrated outside the Tunis’s interior ministry – a potent symbol of torture and repression, as in most Arab countries. And we have broadcast live from Cairo’s Tahrir Square day and night for the last 12 days, despite all attempts to switch off our cameras and arrest our reporters.
This new alliance has given a transformative impetus to the media’s most important role: to make information available to those who should be the source of all power in the region, the people of the Middle East themselves. Once people have access to information, they can decide their own fate and, we believe, make better choices than others have made for them – hopefully ones that will lead to a more peaceful and democratic future.
The role we are now playing is no different from that of the best media in developed countries: extracting information from the powerful to pass it to the ultimate source of power – the people. However, the free media is under continual attack in the region for supposedly “betraying national interests”, or for the timing of our reports, or accused of harbouring hidden agendas of “destabilisation”. In reality, those who make such charges merely expose their determination to keep their own people in the dark about the reality affecting their own lives, unable to correct or adjust – or even accept their fate on the basis of collective will, rather than the decisions of the few.
In the past couple of weeks, the same stock charges were levelled against us by the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank. The attack was made as a result of our broadcast and publication of the Palestine papers, an unprecedented leak of confidential Palestinian negotiations records and internal documents. The papers – which we shared with the Guardian in recognition of the importance of the material and the belief that no outlet should have a monopoly of such a sensitive story – were provided by sources who believed the PA had lost its way. Al-Jazeera’s new transparency unit will now, we hope, be the recipient of many more such leaks from across the region and beyond.
The Middle East is without doubt passing through a period of historic transformation. Al-Jazeera and other free media are not the cause of the wave of uprisings and unrest sweeping the region. The reasons are profound and go far beyond the role of the media. But we are one important factor giving people across the region the means to take control of their own lives. What is certain is that the fate of the Middle East can no longer be decided behind closed doors.
By Wadah Khanfar, the director general of the al-Jazeera network.