From Afghanistan to the Arab Spring: a tale of technology

With unrest ‘springing’ up across the Middle East, nations buoyed by the energies of neighbouring lands, images of civilians rallying and revolting against their governments have beamed into our living rooms more so than ever.

Last week a panel of journalists discussed the role social media has played in the revolutionary phenomenon during a special seminar organised by the Faculty of Creative Arts (Wednesday 1 June).

‘From Afghanistan to the Arab Spring’ brought together two Middle Eastern journalists who are undertaking further training in Australia and international broadcast consultant Steve Ahern.

Mr Ahern led the seminar with a presentation about Afghanistan, having only recently returned from training emerging broadcasters in the region. He says that only military forces can use the internet reliably.

“For a long while the Taliban were blowing up the cell phone towers,” Mr Ahern said.

“I can tell you that the internet it is really slow, really bad and you wouldn’t bother to use it unless you were very desperate.”

“If you happen to be someone in the military then you have amazing satellite infrastructure for your internet but the rest of the population don’t have it,” he said.

In a country with about one million internet users, even modern advancement in mobile telephone technology is limited.

“There is no 3G phone infrastructure so even those who have cheap knock-off smart phones can’t get much out of it,” Mr Ahern said.

“Most telephone handset usage is still small text and talk phones,” he said.

According to Mr Ahern predictive text and emoticons are facilitating a whole new literacy among the largely illiterate population.

“70% of the Afghani population can’t read and write but that’s changing. I was astounded that people were texting all over the place,” Mr Ahern said.

“In a country where people can’t read and write, predictive text and emoticons have had an unbelievable effect on communication,” he said.

Bahraini national Zainab Abdul-Nazi focussed on the political climate of her home country where she worked as a television and newspaper journalist. She spoke of horrific military crackdowns against civilians that showed excessive use of force.

“People in Bahrain are uprising because there is discrimination; in our country the division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is stark,” she said.

“In the Middle East we have a strange situation where the minority control the majority. We are demanding democracy, fundamental rights and political freedom. We want an elected government, not to be ruled by royal members who are parachuted into our country,” she said.

To cap off the seminar University of Wollongong Visiting Fellow Ali Mohammed Asamfar offered a comparative summary of the freedoms enjoyed by various news broadcasters in different Middle Eastern countries.

Mr Asamfar is a morning announcer on Iranian state radio, IRIB and acclaimed actor, playwright and producer. He has one month remaining of journalism training at UOW with the support of an Australian government Endeavour Executive Award before he returns to Shiraz, Iran.

By Melissa Coade


  • Panel journalists Stephen Ahern, Zainab Abdul-Nazi and Ali Mohammad Hesamfar discussed media and democracy in the Middle East last week (Wednesday 1 June).