This is it, the definitive evidence of the relationship between the media, communication and development policy. In the international media today, Libya continues to experience the preview of a long-delayed change. Its youths have been awakened in a unique way by Egypt, Tunisia and the social media to fight for freedom, democratic empowerment and social change. This is indeed eureka moment. Nothing like this was ever expected when Egypt launched the Free Internet initiative in Jan 2002 to drive development.
When it did, a 150% rise in internet usage occurred that year. It led to cheaper internet access. Most Egyptians were involved, not Mubarak’s henchmen – but many youths including journalists, university students, doctors, lawyers and others. Forget the camouflage of poverty and problematic autocratic governance: however much local people feared the police and the army that bullied and threatened them, they had no choice in the matter. The internet gave them the people’s element. Newspapers, magazines and television may filter events, but not the internet. If the youths wanted to vent their anger about the backwardness produced by all of Egyptian ideologies and leaders, they found the internet a means to bypass official channels and congregate to make their grievances known. If they carry a hundred short stories of pain and novels of grievances, the internet created sites for consensus and discussion. Not many of the newspapers, magazines and television stations. It was taken out the hands of the latter because the internet provided an alternative. If citizens wanted others to hold onto much-cherished ideas of democracy and liberty, they could go to the internet – at relatively cheap cost – and almost certainly find space and right to speak and share ideas.
Behind the ICT-based systems services such as Facebook and Twitter, the basis of real subversion is the people’s capacity to catalyze change more rapidly and profoundly. Any person can learn the truth about their leaders and call for social responsibility – even if state media and communication channels are happy to censor information. Neither autocratic leaders or their henchmen can be comfortable with the primary tool for activists to mobilize, project and share information. Egypt’s revolution reveals brave people of all ages can come together quickly to effect a profound change in their country. Facebook for instance, does not want to change its policy requiring people to use their real identities and not aliases. Now everything is open for the business of effecting change and forcing leaders to be responsible to the governed.
Good governance, social responsibility and development will get a look in. Despotic and corrupt leaders can order the army and the police to beat up their citizens, but it can’t stop people from taking photographs and videos and showing them on the online networking sites. Like popcorn, the images will be shared on a public internet gathering. This sets a nuclear bomb because there can be no going back.
The wildfire flame of social networking can burn quickly. In just a few weeks, a Facebook can accumulate over 230,000 fans, as happened in Egypt with Wael Ghonim, who started the page that literally led to the exit of Mubarak.
Is the relationship between communication, media and development exaggerated? The analysis was done by Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s Communication executive, but even he didn’t fail to note technology is a vital tool in the Egyptian struggle. It is not a perfect match, but the turmoil in Tunisia boiled over largely to social media. At the time of the Jasmine Revolution, the relatively poor country of 10 million had 4 million internet users and the restrictions were not enough to stop the upheaval. Protesters wanting democracy and liberty in Iran and Burma were always using it to an advantage. Mubarak and Ben Ali's pig-headed determination, against popular tide, to shut or curtail internet access during their crises stand as the worst exemplar: it fell over and cost them their power.
Msnc.com's Wilson Rothman wrote recently that few doubt that much of the momentum built in Egypt was when Wael Gbonim anonymously started a Facebook page to commemorate the death of Khalid Said, beaten to death by police for flaunting drug possession online. In the New York Times earlier in the month, Thomas Friedman stated: "If indeed it can move Egypt to democracy, this movement, combined with social media, will be more subversive to autocratic regimes than Nasserism, Islamism or Baathism combined. Through the use of social media and other communication tools, autocrats will have to be much more responsive to their people's priorities, which are development and change.
This is why the global community needs to assist developing countries for enhanced connectivity, accessibility and affordability of ICT tools. And the best way to do this is through the language of the people. It could divert some fund to challenged countries to build world-class institutions to support free, pluralistic and independent media environment in order to consolidate democratic transformation and development.
Something else will create impact on youths in developing countries. Democratisation, 'Communication for Development' and other approaches for governance should be vigorously pursued towards the creation of inclusive, people-centred and development-oriented societies.
Development partners could evolve sustainable strategies to strengthen traditional and emerging information communication technologies to awaken the quest for freedom, good governance and political transformation in developing countries.
Governance advisers could encourage use of innovative media initiatives to transform relationship between citizens and their governments so that dialogue emerges for stakeholders to express their ideas as both consumers and producers of information.
Media assistance strategies could explore engaging youths in peace-building, governance and human rights issues for safe social space and creation of institutions that citizens trust and view as a credible source of information.
Development partners may provide assistance through possible new models that prioritise media and communication’s role in development, peace-building and growth of developing nations.
Furthermore, privately-controlled communication channels could be strengthened to empower citizens of lesser endowed nations through accessing correct information and developing democratic aspirations.
Dictators, autocrats and other local strongmen are always setting up their anti-democratic ideologies in developing countries, speeding the tracks on collision course with their people. This accounts for why social networking gained ground so quickly in Egypt and Tunisia. People need training in the strategic use of media and communication in the quest for personal dignity and liberty. Once trained, they have nothing to fear in standing up against other Ben Alis and Mubaraks.