Mark Zuckerberg is emblazoned across this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek cover. Standing with his arms crossed and the knowing grin that only a multibillionaire on the cusp of something exciting has, the headline reads: “Facebook Hits Puberty”. At least that’s what the US version of the magazine says. The headline in the regional version of exactly the same article simply says: “What Facebook Did Next”.
Though only a minor difference and a very small example, the cover typifies the cultural sensitivities of region and the differences between Western media and journalism here in the Middle East.
Regional media outlets have to cope with a multitude of unique media rules and regulations such as criminal repercussions for defamation, insult charges, and of course self-censorship. But social media and the Arab Spring are helping to push the boundaries – albeit very slowly.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, social media is being used as a tool to openly comment on a wide range of political issues, from the ban on female drivers to changes in legislation. Though the country remains highly regulated, social media platforms are allowing for a form of interaction that isn’t permitted in public. Across the region, more and more citizens are using social media to discuss once taboo subjects, which are then being disseminated by the media.
Regional governments have also becoming more sensitive about the growing influence of social media platforms in public debate and are listening clearly to commentators. Some government leaders also use these platforms very effectively. For example, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, regularly announces government decisions on Twitter (https://twitter.com/HHShkMohd). Recently Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Commerce and Industry, Tawfiq Al Rabiah, announced on Twitter that authorities in the Gulf state had banned an advert by the property developer, DAMAC, because it was deemed misleading (http://pic.twitter.com/bNRSu2b8DF).
The Arab Spring has also played a significant role in journalism. Though stories of high-profile commentators and journalists being arrested for inappropriate or insulting comments on social networks, appears to be rising, local media is providing extensive coverage of the events and campaigns calling for their freedom. In years gone by, these stories would have been simply brushed under the carpet. And it is exactly these kinds of small steps that are changing the face of media in the Middle East.