Inspired by these events and high on the hope of the Arab Spring, I helped start Raseef22, a digital space for those eager to know what was going on around them.
Six years later, the website (now based in Lebanon) boasts 12 million readers a year spread across 22 Arab countries. We have more than 150 active contributors. Raseef22 cultivated a following among a burgeoning progressive readership whose members wanted to see the shattering of myths that have long divided us along sectarian and ethnic lines. We have a readership that believes in the talent and promise of the Arab mind and sees the ugliness of tyranny, patriarchy, misogyny and the futility of proxy rulers and wars.
Jamal Khashoggi was one of many journalists we engaged with. Seven months before his murder, Khashoggi became a regular contributor at Raseef22; he was aware that his words would be closely read back in Riyadh. He wrote with the knowledge that a few words held the power to alter the course of media and popular discourse — and could land a publisher in jail or worse. His articles with Raseef22 were constructive and, in some instances, supportive of certain ideas presented in Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plans for Saudi Arabia. From the Oslo Freedom Forum, Khashoggi addressed the whole Arab world in a masterpiece on the value of freedom; in another article, he voiced fear of imprisonment. Khashoggi constantly voiced his disappointment at the state of human rights in the Arab world, writing about post-traumatic stress disorder and the fear many journalists, thinkers and even imams live in, knowing that they could wake up in jail for any random reason.
In December, possibly as a result of the unprecedented reaction that followed the Khashoggi murder, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission was instructed to block Raseef22. We were one of a handful of media outlets covering the development of the story in Arabic. Being blocked in Saudi Arabia meant losing our most dynamic and lucrative market. Raseef22 has been reporting on Saudi activism for years, interviewing activists now in jail or under house arrest, courageously recounting the region’s history and conflict. We went as far as covering the diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which was another taboo in the local media. The limits on expression are getting tighter, and regimes are increasingly nervous and fearful. Many governments are enacting laws regulating and restricting expression on social media in Arab capitals by order of the ruler.
But it’s not just Saudi Arabia. In September, Raseef22 suffered a major blow when Egypt blocked us after the site published an article on the competition between various intelligence factions vying to stifle Egyptian media. By then, Egypt had already blocked access to more than 500 websites it considered undesirable, including a number of the country’s leading websites.
Despite the blocks in these countries, advanced technology such as proxy websites, new browsers, Google and YouTube search results help loosen the grip of these governments. If Facebook Instant Articles were available to Arab publishers, Arabic-language readers could also have access to censored content.
Sadly, only a handful of Arabic-language media operate without a political agenda. New media are seen as “foreign” agents with dangerous agendas. Investigative reporting in the Arab world, whether into corruption or the treatment of minorities, results in journalists being accused of “Takhween” (treason) or being seen as worthy of “Takfeer,” (excommunication).
Journalists live in fear of attacks, imprisonment and even the shutting down of the publication they work for. No longer is it shocking to hear of a journalist or caricaturist’s random arrest, or of a strategically broken right hand. These risks come with the trade, that is something we have long accepted, but we find consolation in the knowledge that each morning we are less vulnerable than we were the day before.
Independent media represents the inevitable future that Arab governments fear: a future with a more tolerant and open society, where democracy is not a crime and the people no longer need their government to be their custodians. Rational dialogue is key to countering extremism. A civil society supported by responsible media is the only way to instill the right values in a young population hungry for freedom.