In recent years, Internet users in the MENA region have begun to support increased Internet regulation, according to a study on Media Use in the Middle East by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q).
The school’s dean and CEO, Everette E. Dennis, pointed to that finding to remind the audience at a panel discussion on media use and regulation in the MENA region held in partnership with NU-Q during the second day of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s World Congress that “you need to know about how people use the media and what they think about them”.
He added: “[It] is a key to understanding the general climate of freedom of expression.”
The study’s data revealed that more than 50 percent of nationals in five out of the six Arab countries surveyed favoured more Internet regulation.
“We don’t find public support for freedom of expression,” Lina Ejeilat, the co-founder and executive editor of 7iber.com in Jordan – an online news publication that started out of citizen journalism – said. She added that the MENA region lacks a tradition of upholding press freedom and recognising other legal measures that can that can hold media accountable without enforcing restriction.
According to Jeffrey Cole, founder and director of the World Internet Project, this attitude is seen outside of the region as well.
“The desire to see a clamping down, a restriction, a control [on press freedom] is growing,” Cole, who is also the director of the Center of the Digital Future at the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California, said. “As the Internet has unleashed so much speech… people seem to want to be cleansed of the bad speech.”
The NU-Q study also showed that Internet users have become more concerned with government and corporate surveillance of online activity and that social media use has changed in the region due to these privacy concerns.
During the Arab Spring, social media was a way to connect to the rest of the world and voice the people’s concerns, Nabeel Rajab, the president and co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, noted.
“There was a period of… relative freedom because the government had not caught up with this space,” Ejeilat said.
Rajab opined that “we, as social media activists, have replaced the classic media outlets”.
Today, however, governments are figuring out how to control and regulate this space and working on doing so, Ejeilat said. Nevertheless, there remains a consensus that they can never fully control the Internet.
“We could spread our principle that we fight for, we could spread values that we are struggling for [through social media],” Rajab said. “It’s not only [the] government that can control that.”
*This article was revised on March 21 to correct a typographical error misattributing a quote.