On October 31, 2019, Arab Center Washington DC convened its fourth annual conference, titled “Media and Democracy in the Arab World: Freedoms and Human Rights in the Digital Age,” to address the role of social media since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010-2011. Coming as the Arab world experiences more protests in Lebanon and Iraq, which also followed others in Algeria and Sudan, the conference sought to address the importance of digital media in demanding political change, freedom of expression, and democracy. The conference also addressed the Arab governments’ attempts to further control the public space through more repression, curtailment of freedoms, limits on cyber-space, and widespread utilization of the digital media.

The conference consisted of five sessions: a morning keynote address on the US media and the Arab world and the question of Palestine, a luncheon interview with an advisor to the investigation into the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and three panel sessions on the Arab public sphere, media politics and freedom of expression, and the weaponization of social media. Panelists included university professors, journalists, and social media experts from the United States and abroad.

Journalist, activist, and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill gave the morning keynote address titled “US Media and the Arab World: Freedom of Expression on Palestine.” He explained that in the United States, the prevalent negative associations with the Middle East stem from a racist and Orientalist point of view that couches the region as a moral intellectual opposite of the West. Coupled with a lack of knowledge of the area and fundamental misunderstandings, this leads to dehumanization of Arab and Muslim lives and reinforces a view that Arab communities are unable to engage in work toward peace and democratization. In addition, the uneven relations of power—especially between Israel, an occupying power that violates international law, and the Palestinians —are not taken into account and are actually buttressed by the West. Indeed, he said that such a framework limits conversation about the Middle East whereas the media’s role is to expand the truth. “We have to have a moral and ethical vocabulary that informs the work that we do,” Hill asserted.

In the first panel, titled “The Arab Public Sphere in the Age of the New Authoritarianism,” panelists discussed the extent to which cyber-activism has been instrumental in the calls for change in the Arab world. They also addressed the role of Arab governments in limiting and controlling the public sphere as well as their use of the same social media platforms and practices to increase their capacity for repression. Panelists concluded that the experience of the past decade shows that while social media has been an effective tool in demanding change, activists should not think that it is sufficient in achieving their goals.

During the luncheon conversation, Al Araby TV reporter Reema Abuhamdieh interviewed Bakhtiyor Avedzjanov, legal advisor to Agnes Callamard, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions who investigated the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Avedzjanov discussed the significance of the report in providing an evidence-based grounding for Khashoggi’s murder. However, he emphasized that accountability depends on the international community, as the report is non-binding. He applauded the efforts of Congress to declassify US intelligence information; and he argued that US pressure on Saudi Arabia could create a global effect. He also noted that Callamard has proposed a mechanism to investigate threats to journalists, which may secure a stronger future for freedom of expression in the Arab world.

In the second panel on “Controlling the Narrative, Silencing Dissent: Media Politics and Freedom of Expression,” speakers addressed the tools and methods that governments in the Middle East employ to curb freedom of expression in general and voices in the media in particular. These include sophisticated hacking and surveillance mechanisms, severe censorship, trolling and harassment online, internet shutdowns during times of protest, arrests and re-arrests, and torture and interrogation. Although citizens, human rights activists, and journalists continue to report and express their opinions, they experience anxiety and depression and many engage in self-censorship, whether deliberate or unconscious. Many have gone into exile, thus further draining the region of expertise; this halts the natural development of their societies. The example of Jamal Khashoggi had a chilling effect, spurring people to say what they think outsiders want to hear, rather than their own views.

In the third panel, titled “Cyber Geopolitics and the Weaponization of Social Media,” panelists discussed the tension between the possibilities of social media for free expression and their abuse by authoritarian governments in the Arab world. They noted the proliferation of bots in the Arabic-language Twitter-sphere that promote state discourses and share sectarian rhetoric; they also emphasized the need for Twitter to take these threats seriously. However, they cautioned that efforts to crack down on dangerous online content may cast too wide a net, further silencing marginalized groups, and affirmed that cybercrime laws are used to limit free expression in the Middle East. Panelists also discussed the importance of corporate accountability, as companies comply with local laws that violate human rights frameworks to gain access to new markets.