Continuing with its theme, Arab Media: Riding out Storms of Change, the concluding day of the Arab Media Forum 2011 provided some insight into how media is expected to evolve in the region following the Arab uprising.

In a session entitled, Media in a Shifting Arab World, one of the key changes highlighted by the panel’s speakers was the rise of the “citizen journalist” – the concept of members of the public playing an active role in breaking news, as well as collecting and reporting information to professional journalists.

One of the first cases that internationally highlighted the importance of citizen journalists and social media was during the Iranian demonstrations in the summer of 2009, an event which panellist Octavia Nasr – a former CNN journalist – had personally covered.

“The information we received from the public was very important – however, any information or footage also had to be thoroughly checked and analysed by our team in order to avoid using fabricated material,” she said.

Prior to the Tunisian uprising last January, it can be argued that no-one in the Arab world really knew how powerful your average citizen could be when it came to showing real news in real time. But when protestors emerged demanding the removal of now former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, numerous Arab and international news channels relied on videos, pictures and comments from those at the protests in order to report what was really happening.

The same pattern emerged with Egypt. When Al Jazeera’s signal was cut by authorities in the country, and the network’s journalists were forced to hide their identities whilst reporting, it became a case of demonstrators calling up the news channels to report as well. During the first few days of protests, when the Egyptian government cut the internet from the whole country, residents were speaking to friends abroad via landline, and in turn those friends abroad would share information via Facebook, Twitter…etc.

However, and understandably, the panellists warned that the concept of citizen journalism also came with risks, and that information should always be verified.

Reuters, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera have all apparently made the mistake of showing footage older than advertised, as well as footage claiming to be something it is not. Al Arabiya’s editor Nabil Al Khatib told the audience that governments could also play a part in this false reporting.

“There are cases when some of the false news could have been sent by the government so that they can turn around and discredit a news channel,” he said. “When you undermine a channel’s credibility, it then increases the chances of the ordinary citizen believing the regime.”

However, the entire panel of speakers – which also included Abeer Najjar (Assistant Professor from the Department of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah) and Qenan Al Ghamdi (Editor-in-Chief of Al Sharq newspaper) – noted that there is still a long way before media is 100 per cent “free” in this region.

They concluded that, despite the fact there is a rise in freedom of speech in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, there is still a long way to go for other countries in the region. However, it is predicted that Egypt could re-build its economy by becoming a base for a range of Middle Eastern news networks and publications, with the concept of free speech being the number one draw for companies and publishers. Let’s see what deals are announced at the Arab Media Forum 2012.