A number of public figures and governments in the Arab world are advocating for the implementation of specific legislation to regulate the content and use of digital media. Specifically, they want to implement a system in which blog or website creators must “declare” that they are creating a blog or website before doing so, and to establish a specific penal system for infractions committed in the virtual world.
Underlying these measures is the intention to restrain what are being called "digital freedoms", especially as activists capitalise on the features of cyberactivism to champion their causes of political opposition and change.
Without a doubt, blogging has fostered the emergence of citizen journalism across the Middle East and North Africa, which has successfully circumvented social constraints and the restrictions imposed by political regimes in the region on mainstream media outlets. Over the years, social media has been instrumental in broadening the scope of citizens' expression and offering alternative sources of information to so-called “traditional” media.
This gradual adoption of information technologies by individuals and groups at the civil society level has occurred over the years thanks to a sustained growth in internet access and improvement in information infrastructure. In addition, free and pluralistic expression now extends beyond blogs to social networks such as Facebook, and microblogging platforms like Twitter.
Legal regulations strictly for digital media do not make sense, because online expression is no different from other traditional modes of expression. Internet postings do not require new and specific legal provisions to define the limits of written or multimedia expression. It is sufficient to apply the same code of ethics as for print and broadcast media, such as steering clear of slander and libel.
Any attempt at regulating this activity is bound to be read as an attack against a whole spectrum of freedoms, especially freedom of speech, in the digital universe. Yet this is precisely what a number of countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco, are doing by shutting down and censoring internet sites.
Greater adoption of information technologies and innovation in the digital space are dependent on the existence of a free and unfettered cyberspace for internet users in the region. As such Middle Eastern and North African governments should instead foster greater adoption of information technologies and more content development by a broad spectrum of Arab internet users.
In addition, the future of blogs and social networks depends strongly on the quality of the content on the internet. Regrettably, the Maghreb and Middle East regions suffer from an editorial deficit; very little original content from countries in these regions is available on the web.
To fill this gap, artists, writers and scientists should be encouraged to publish their work on various digital platforms, like blogs, microblogs and social networks. Digital activism should not be a privilege reserved for political stakeholders and civil society activists. Efforts should be made to empower civil society actors to go online in large numbers. A massive handover of digital media space to users with the potential to express themselves and get their work published will promote the sharing and dissemination of scientific, literary and artistic content.
The educational system could play a driving role in the dynamic promotion of the information society. Rather than new regulations, education in "digital expression" for the young and teaching best practices for online publication should be promoted.
In parallel, the school system could also explore the positive aspects of blogs and social networks to encourage youth to take advantage of various online forums and their potential to foster interaction. The challenge to involve a wide variety of internet users in the spread of knowledge online is a far higher priority than crafting a legal framework that would have to be continually revised anyway to keep up with technological innovations and the emergence of new communication media.
The Arab online scene does not need new regulations. What it needs is increased freedom and engagement by diverse bloggers, beyond the activists and militant and political groups. This can only happen if it is made more accessible to a greater number of contributors and readers rather than catering only to the few.
* Rachid Jankari is a journalist specialising in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and a consultant on online journalism and new media. He is also CEO of MIT Media (www.mit-media.com) and blogs at www.jankari.org. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews