Media @ McGill

Ali Mohamed | Online Journalism and the Public Sphere in the Arab World: A Case Study of Egypt

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My dissertation is an investigation into how various forms of alternative media associated with the Internet-especially Weblogs-are impacting the Arab world. With the growing diffusion and popularity of the Internet in the Arab world since the mid-1990s, along with other transformations of the media landscape locally and globally, it has become important to assess the influence of the Internet with respect to how it is helping to build and sustain alternative or new public spheres. The new modes of political communication, by individuals and social groups using new media, are resources for political debate and action, and consequently, are important constituents of the public sphere. Although emerging new alternative media in the Arab world utilize new communication technologies such as the Internet, as of yet, this phenomenon has not received much attention from Arab researchers. Despite the critical importance of understanding the ways in which relevant social actors utilize new technology in a political and historical context, most of the research literature has not addressed this issue. Therefore, I focus on Egypt as a case study to explore the phenomenon of the emerging digital media in relation to the public sphere in the Arab world. Specifically, I examine blogging as a prominent kind of new media and online political communication that is on the upsurge worldwide, and which has become an important factor in the creation of an effective public sphere and the enhancement of activism.

The central hypothesis of my study suggests that the Internet and online journalism as practiced in Egypt over recent years have helped to create a new space for dialogues about democracy, and thus, also have strengthened the public sphere in Egypt. This hypothesis raises some specific concerns: Do the new modes of political communication over the Internet, basically the blogging phenomenon, serve as sites for free public discussion? Does the Internet help to produce a functioning alternative public sphere? What is the current state of the development of the Internet in Egypt? What is the extent of online participation in the alternative public sphere in Egypt?

Some of the research questions I will investigate are the following:

1. To what extent do new online modes of political communication as practiced in Egypt succeed to generate opinion-formation and expression that could be recognized as a full-fledged alternative public sphere? Do these new modes of political communication enlarge the quantity of participation at the expense of the quality of discourse (one of Habermas's reservations about the transformation of the bourgeois public sphere)? In other words, are these new modes of political communication a source of "noise" rather than information that, if not necessarily always rational, is of some value in the process of democratization.

2. To what extent do the social conditions in Egypt facilitate the constitution of a democratic public sphere made possible by the Internet? In other words, is the outcome of the Internet and alternative media use in Egypt identical to the use of the same technology in democratic countries?
My dissertation includes an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The Introduction introduces the problem of the study, my motivation for doing the research, my research questions, and methodology. Following is a brief outline of my four chapters.

Chapter 1: "Literature Review and Theoretical and Methodological Framework" presents a critical review of the literature of the politics of new media and theories of digital politics-for example, Kellner's "techno-politics," Mark Poster's account of politics on the Internet and his idea of the net as a new form of public sphere, Jodi Dean's "communicative capitalism," and so on. Specifically, the principal framework for my study depends on Habermas's notion of the normative public sphere. In addition, to investigating the Internet and its impact on the growth of a potential alternative public sphere in Egypt, I anchor my study in a theoretical framework that draws on concepts from related fields of inquiry, such as studies of citizen's media, democracy, and interactive journalism.

Chapter 2: "The Shifting Negotiations Between Governmental Regulation and Politics and the Media in Egypt" provides essential information concerning the specific Egyptian context in which blogging journalism exists in Egypt, and from which it has emerged, so to create a better understanding of the discourse of blogging journalism itself. The evidence shows that the iron hand of Egyptian state authority has softened under the impact of the Internet, and thus, new democratic possibilities are on the horizon in Egypt. This chapter discusses in detail the Egyptian political system, the political opposition in Egypt, the communication system (print and broadcast media), and the limits of freedom of expression in Egypt.

Chapter 3: "Interviews With Egyptian Bloggers, Journalists, and Human Rights Activists on Emerging Media and Alternative Journalism in Egypt" is based on the empirical data I gathered in Egypt in the spring of 2009 when I conducted face-to-face in-depth interviews with 15 bloggers and journalists, as well as a variety of civil society and human rights activists. The purpose of these interviews was to discuss the use and the role of blogging in Egypt, and how bloggers as citizen journalists in Egypt help to produce political engagement in a substantial way that contributes to facilitating a dialogue about democracy and a new kind of public sphere. The analysis of the interviews yields important data about bloggers' perceptions about the Internet and what they are doing with these new media platforms for free expression and social activism. These interviews included questions about their motivations and backgrounds, their perceptions of their role in helping to create a public sphere that has opened the door to a dialog about democracy, and the challenges and the opportunities of blogging in Egypt.

Chapter 4: "Developing Ethical Dispositions and Commitments of Emerging Media Journalists" explores how the performance of emerging media journalists has been measured against established ethical standards. However, often this kind of measurement does not account for the personal ethical dispositions and commitments of these citizen journalists. Although new or emerging media technologies are positioned as creating new possibilities for democratization and freedom of expression, and as being vital to the development of information to help transform traditional modes of production, consumption, and distribution, they raise a set of ethical issues. For example, all my study participants unanimously refuse to adopt any code of ethics, or to even think about ethics, arguing that "let our credibility and quality be determined by our readers." In light of my interviews with bloggers and journalists, and my textual analysis of a sample of blogging Websites, I am keeping open the question of the ethics and politics of new media.

In the Conclusion, I provide some examples in which blogging and the emerging social networking media have made important contributions to the coverage of some issues avoided by the mainstream media in Egypt, such as sexual harassment, prisoner torture, the general strike, and the Kefaya movement. In addition, I discuss why my dissertation is an original contribution to answering questions concerning the emerging media and the public sphere in the Egyptian experience. I also make recommendations for further research in the arena of new media and the public sphere.