LONDON — New media, notably Facebook and Twitter, undoubtedly played a role in enabling the Tunisian uprising that swept an Arab autocrat from power. But this groundbreaking revolt had deeper roots — in the awakening of Arab public opinion that has been spurred by the creation of the first independent Arab mass media.
Al Jazeera, a 24-hour pan-Arab satellite news service, was created in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad, the Emir of Qatar, as part of a plan to put his tiny and exceedingly rich fiefdom on the map. It has been a brilliant success.
Arab dictators (other than Sheikh Hamad) hated it because it broke their stranglehold on freedom of information. And Western governments mistrusted it because it gave airtime to Al Qaeda and covered the Arab side of America's conflicts in the Middle East. It has been boycotted, banned and even bombed. But Al Jazeera's Arabic language service has become the most widely watched news channel in the Middle East, with a claimed audience of 40 to 50 million.
By comparison, Washington spends more than $100 million annually to air Al Hurra, a U.S. government-sponsored Arabic language satellite channel that few people bother to watch. Most Arab viewers also mistrust their own national broadcasters because they censor the news and promote the government line.
As a result, Al Jazeera has become a prime shaper of Arab public opinion. A recent poll showed that in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, it is watched by more than 50 percent of viewers. Palestine TV attracts 12 percent, and Al Arabiya (Al Jazeera's main rival, sponsored by Saudi Arabia) only 10 percent.
The Columbia Journalism Review said that Al Jazeera's coverage of any future peace deal with Israel would heavily influence whether a majority of Palestinians accept it.
It is that powerful.
Al Jazeera claims not to take sides, but it has a natural pro-Arab bias, just as most Western media have a Western bias. More importantly, it makes a point of airing various sides of an issue. It even maintains a news bureau in Israel. Its news, talk shows and discussion programs have raised the level of political sophistication of its Arab viewers and increased their reluctance to believe the pronouncements of their own governments. Traditional Arab rulers see it as subversive.
By helping to educate and reshape Arab public opinion, it changed the political landscape and created the mindset that encouraged the overthrow of Tunisian President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The spark that ignited the Tunisian revolt was the desperate act of a university graduate who set himself afire in a protest at his inability to find work. In this new media environment where such dramatic events become instant hits (an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Tunisians are on Facebook), it has already inspired similar protests in other North African countries.
Facebook might be the new face of revolutions, but if other Middle East dictators eventually fall, Al Jazeera can take some of the credit for preparing the ground.
And that is why, in the last few years, several key Arab countries have been trying to steal Al Jazeera's audience. Egypt's dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak has flooded his national TV channels with sports, broadcast serials, movies and late night chat shows. The Saudi royal family has adopted a similar strategy, importing foreign entertainment. The aim is to seduce their people with glitz and soft soap, and grab a share of the audience that might otherwise be watching Al Jazeera.
Arab media critics say Arab media manipulators have been having some success. Soft content is gaining ground in Arab broadcasting at the expense of Al Jazeera's hard news.
If so, that's not good news for Arab democracy.