Rise of independent media makes for freer public debate

Professor says stations like Al Jazeera provide variety of opinion that other media lack.

DUBAI // The rise of new media has made it increasingly difficult for governments to control what information the public receives, a professor in journalism and public diplomacy said. "There is a new kind of independence to be able to talk about issues that couldn't be discussed before," said Prof Philip Seib, launching his book, The Al Jazeera Effect, in Dubai Wednesday.

Prof Seib said government-run channels were improving the quality of their output because of competition from independent media outlets. "The role of state-run channels has diminished, but at the same time the quality has got better because they have to compete with the likes of Al Jazeera, for example," he said. The Al Jazeera Effect focuses on alternative media, and multimedia particularly, where the increase in blogs and other internet outlets has led to information being disseminated to a wider audience much faster.

"With internet-based media, trying to control political discourse is like trying to hold back the tide," Prof Seib said. "This can be both positive and negative, like how al Qa'eda uses internet media." In his book, Prof Seib has introduced the notion of "virtual communities", where new media provides "cohesion among groups" in a way that was not possible before. This could be linking a diaspora population together, or connecting people who were previously unconnected. Through these virtual communities a "virtual state" is also formed in which the media has been used as a platform to create a political entity, such as Kurdistan.

"There is no official Kurdistan but, through the rise of new media, links can be made between the different Kurdish communities which create a virtual state and gives a sense of identity." He said the role of western media had diminished in the region with the rise of local outlets, as shown by media options available during the first Gulf war in 1991 compared to those available now. "In 1991, all people could watch was CNN or BBC," Prof Seib said.

"In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was Al Jazeera, Al-Manar, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation? so many choices. "What you see is a rise of indigenous media providing information, where Arab journalists are giving news to an Arab audience." As a result, Prof Seib said there had been more credibility given to the reporting. "It definitely provides to a richer environment now that people have options," he said.