There is an important lesson that so many citizens, leaders and despots across the Arab world have learned the hard way, but which has yet to be internalized in Israel. A vast global revolution is changing priorities around the world, along with systems of government, culture and information. The digital revolution is tearing down walls, obliterating boundaries and bringing together disparate forces Anyone who fails to recognize that all the revolutions around us are the direct consequence of this massive digital revolution is condemned to be startled by its impact every day. Ideas and attitudes appropriate to old media and the world of yesteryear have no chance of survival in the era of new media.
But it takes more than just a satellite dish and an internet connection to survive in this new world. You need an open mind too. You have to keep up, and most of all, you have to understand that it is no longer possible to control the flow of information or to put a stop to information that has already leaked out.
This week in Israel, they tried to apply the methods of the past. When an investigative report on Ben Zygier was aired on Australia’s ABC network, someone still believed that imposing an across-the-board ban on the information could seal Israel off hermetically, as if we were North Korea.
If we’re talking about how people go about obtaining valid information, allow me to share a recollection from my childhood. Every morning, my father would tune one of those old radio sets that we had long ago so that he could hear the “real” news. By this I don’t mean the news that was broadcast on the Voice of Israel ('Kol Israel'), which was and remains subject to state supervision and control. The Israeli Broadcasting Authority has a government appointee responsible for everything it broadcasts, just like Arab broadcasters in the region.
True, Israel is a democratic state, and the Voice of Israel isn’t exactly a government mouthpiece. But when my father wanted to get objective information about what was going on in the world — and for him that meant the Middle East, and even Israel, whose leaders controlled information — he would never tune his radio to the Voice of Cairo or Baghdad, or even to Radio Amman. Instead he listened to BBC Arabic.
In our house, the familiar sounds of Big Ben could be heard every morning, followed immediately by the sonorous voice of the British news broadcaster saying “Huna Landan” (“This is London”) in fluent Arabic. It sounded as if he really wanted to say, “Dear Arabic-speaking listeners around the world, we have gathered here to get around the embargo on information in your respective countries. We assume that if your radio is tuned to the BBC, you want to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We’ll share that with you right away with the help of our reporters stationed around the world.” (By the way, here lies a paradox. The BBC is a national public broadcaster, subject to the oversight of the British government. As it turns out, however, there is a big difference between the way that Britain oversees its public broadcasting and the absolute control of broadcast practiced in several places throughout the Middle East.)
When the BBC news was over, my father turned the dial to Radio Monte Carlo, another mythical source of reliable information. With many millions of listeners, they also employed reporters around the world for their Arabic-language broadcasts. In other words, given the state of affairs, reliable information was a valuable commodity, and eager consumers in Cairo and Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Sana’a — who couldn't get it from local sources — could find it on Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC London.
My father, who emigrated here from Iraq, remained deeply skeptical of the reliability of any media outlet subject to the government, no matter who sat at the head of that government. It was in his DNA. Like millions of citizens in the Arab states, my father lost his faith in state-run, official radio, which served its respective governments, or in the printed press, which would not dare criticize that government. Those citizens searched for a source of information that wouldn't begin news broadcasts with a long and tedious account of the international travels of the Egyptian president, the Jordanian king or some Saudi prince who, somehow, were always reviewing an honor guard. These scenes were inevitably accompanied by martial music and sycophantic comments from newscasters, who were actually state employees reporting from the studio.
The big change began when Al-Jazeera started broadcasting from Qatar. Many BBC employees, including renowned newscaster Faisal al-Qassem, joined the new station, which fired an opening salvo that echoed from one end of the Arab world to the other. Even when it started “pounding out” its motto — “the opinion and the other opinion (al-rai wa-al-rai al-ahar),” which accompanied all its broadcasts — not one of its founders or staff ever imagined that one day in the future, when people tried to pinpoint the start of the communications revolution in the Arab world, it would be the launch of Al-Jazeera’s news broadcasts.
It should be enough to note that Egypt’s deposed president Hosni Mubarak despised the network and apparently knew why. Other leaders, many of them still in power, know that the official state television stations that they own might continue to serve them faithfully, but that they have almost no audience left.
Today, of course, people no longer need the BBC or Radio Monte Carlo to know what is happening. Thousands of TV stations can be picked up with a satellite dish and a convertor that costs just a few bucks. And, of course, there are smartphones, which allow everyone everywhere to press on a button and download straight from the internet, share files, send instant messages and speak to anybody they want, all at the same time, from anywhere in the world. People’s ears are wide open now, and no one can stop the flow of information over broadband.
This process took place in Israel too, and conspicuously at that. The big difference is that here, Channel 1, the official government channel, lost its audience long ago. Now only antiquated politicians still fight over its cold corpse, which no longer sets the agenda.
The world of communications underwent a dramatic revolution with the invention of the satellite. The new TV and radio sets went above the heads of their countries’ leaders to broadcast information and critiques, while social networks like Facebook and Twitter finished the job by bringing people together and uniting them.
Would the Egyptian revolution ever have taken place had young people raised on Al-Jazeera not joined forces on Twitter, arranged to meet on Facebook and set off to Tahrir Square with smartphones that could capture every event as it happened? Would the fighting between the rebels and the Assad regime in Syria have continued were the president not worried about the rebels’ YouTube videos documenting his army’s fratricidal campaigns? What will the Palestinians do once they see their neighbors across the Middle East rising up against their rulers on satellite TV? And what does Jordan's King Abdullah say about all this? Does he even realize that Jordanian television isn’t what it used to be?
And then there is Israel. What can we take away from the faulty thought process that blinded those decision-makers who thought a news ban could stand in the way of the digital revolution? Does it mean that the decision-makers themselves are an outdated species with obsolete, antiquated ideas? Were we to depend on how decisions were made in this particular instance, the answer would not only be yes — it would be a matter of great concern. Nor are we just talking about some embarrassing and sensitive security issue surrounding some Mossad agent. We’re talking about the realization that a serious tempest is underway in the new Middle East, and that it is well worth opening their minds and recognizing that the new media is the message.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas.