Sunday, March 05, 2006

Can The Internet Save The Middle East?

Can The Internet Save The Middle East?
Like just about any sane person, I feel a sense of despair when I think about the Middle East. It continues to amaze me how much man can hate.

But once in a while, a ray of hope appears. Ben Casnocha pointed me to this article from Reason, about Middle East Transparent, a Web site that posts the writings of Arab liberals who have no outlet for their opinions in their own countries.

For all the jokes about bloggers, its apparent that free, decentralized, instant publishing can have wonderful impact. Here are a few quotes from the article:
In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a
blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab
newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead.
Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000
copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write,
they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or
unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare.

On the Internet, people can publish whatever they want: no red lines. They
can use pen names if they want. People read, send comments, and they transmit
information to their friends by email and fax, etc. The regimes' monopoly on
information has been broken. Remember: Three months ago a Libyan writer was
assassinated and his fingers cut for writing articles on an opposition Web site.
The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism.

Of course, liberals cannot compete with Al-Jazeera. We do not have the
financial means to start a liberal satellite channel. Hundreds of Arab
millionaires are liberals. Only, they cannot stand up to their regimes. Arab
capitalism is mostly state capitalism. If you are in opposition, you are not
awarded contracts by states. So, for the near future, we do not expect much help
from these quarters.

reason: How is Metransparent funded?

Akel: We are not funded and are surviving by personal means. I have been
paying all the expenses, because promises from a number of Arab businessmen
never materialized. On many occasions I have thought of calling it a day and
ending Metransparent. The burden is getting heavier every day. We are trying to
get financial support free of political conditions, but that is not easy. The
advertisement market is smaller when you are mostly an Arabic-language Web site.
What keeps the site alive is the amazing reaction from the readers.
Metransparent has 50,000–60,000 hits per day, with no publicity and no mailing
campaigns on our part. This means there is demand. Plus, I find it hard to
disappoint all those generous writers who have been with us for two years. Some
of the Syrian writers do not even own a computer. They have to beg friends to
type and email their articles. We shall keep on as long as possible. There is,
probably, a light at the end of the tunnel. Or, we will close down.

Unlike the mainstream media, government cannot control the Internet, and cannot control the blogosphere. A single man can create a Web site that impacts thousands. That is why, in the end, I think that the Internet is the one thing that can save man from himself.

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