Who controls the message? The case of #Qatif and official Saudi policy

“May you live in interesting times”. That ancient Chinese proverb is a favourite, and never has it rung truer than today for anyone who lives in the Middle East.

The past 18 months has completely changed our region. Few have been immune to the changes that have swept the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. During this time so many taboos have been broken. As a media junkie and former journalist what has been most striking is how people are now controlling the message themselves through the use of the internet.

For decades governments in the region controlled the news agenda. Saudi Arabia’s news channels, both television and newspapers, are all state-controlled. The use of satellite dishes was illegal (I can’t ever remember reading any official announcements legalizing satellite dishes in the country) and all foreign publications imported into the country were censored with a black pen. Anything that was critical was either black penned, ripped out of the magazine or newspaper, or, in the worst case, the publication would be banned.

What has happened over the past 18 months has changed this perception. For reasons that I’m not going to go into on this blog post – I’m only focusing on the communications aspect rather than the politics – various events have taken place in Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Region. There have been several incidents of late in Qatif. What is remarkable is how those who are protesting in Qatif are using Youtube to spread their message. Previously, they never had any means to tell their story. To see how that has now changed, look at the below.

The above video has been viewed 160 thousand times in the space of two days. What is just as remarkable is the channel where this is hosted on Youtube. The channel’s name is Qatif News Channel, and videos are uploaded daily.

The Qatif News channel is hosted on Youtube and has been viewed over 200,000 times since it was set up on February 9th 2012.

This media is being used to tell a story that is feeding global media, such as this report by Al Jazeera.

Confronted with today’s ability to collect content, upload it to the internet and distribute that media, there’s little that official media or policy can do apart from run editorials condemning such actions. The below is from the English-language Saudi Gazette and sums up media reactions in the Saudi press.

Maintain public peace, Al-Qatif sheikhs tell youth was the standard line in many Saudi media publications.

The question faced by governments is how do they regain control of media channels and ensure that their message is heard loud and clear? There’s no going back, there’s no closing down the internet (Egypt’s Mubarak tried and failed). Some governments have become media-savvy and are now creating their own content for distribution online. A rumour circulated last year that Saudi’s King Abdullah had bough Facebook to stop the Arab Spring. Maybe someone wasn’t joking when they suggested buying Facebook?

No, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah did not offer to buy Facebook for $150 billion.

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