Social media & change

April 26, 2011

It’s been exactly two months since the peaceful sit-in started in Salalah, and our protesters are still sleeping under the stars every night in front of the Governor’s office, waiting for reform. 

There’s nothing much to report on that front since nothing of great significance has happened over the past few weeks, except for a thousand people who marched through central Salalah on Friday to remind authorities of their demands.

The fact that nothing major has occurred is probably a good thing. Why? Well, you can interpret that in any way you like. Let’s look past the protests, sit-ins and political slogans for a moment and shed some light on some of the hidden forces behind our peaceful uprising.

It’s been fascinating to watch the role social media has been playing in Oman these past few months. We can no longer underestimate the power of simple Internet tools such as blogs and social networking sites, especially in countries where television, radio and newspaper content are heavily censored.

Take Egypt for example, where online platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been credited with helping to propel the revolution and bring down the government. The situation in Oman is definitely not that dramatic (it never is!), since Omanis simply seek to improve living conditions and prosecute a handful of former corrupt government officials.

In recent weeks, most Omanis have been visiting local Internet forums, namely the hugely popular Sabla, for real local news and updates from the protests. By real news, I’m referring to all the interesting happenings in Oman that are never published in local newspapers, especially Arabic ones, due to heavy media censorship. For some reason, English newspapers seem to get away with a lot more.

Furthermore, the number of Omani Facebook users has increased significantly since the popular social networking site became available in Arabic a little over a year ago.

However, according to Internet statistics, the number of users in Oman has almost doubled in the past few months to more than a quarter of a million (up from 120,000 in 2010). People who hardly knew what Facebook was a couple of months ago are now active members.

When the protests first started in Salalah in February, I subscribed to several Facebook groups linked to the protests so I could receive updates on my BlackBerry. Since then, I’ve had to stop some of the feeds because it was becoming rather overwhelming. At one point, I was receiving live updates every few minutes, including photos and videos of the speeches that were being given at the protests in Salalah.

Social media has provided a platform for Omanis to express their solidarity, both within the country and with others in the region and beyond. For many, the Internet has become the only effective way to get information about the current state of unrest in the country.

However, despite the important role social media has been playing in Oman, we still suffer from Internet censorship. In recent weeks, several local blogs have been blocked by regulatory authorities in Oman for criticising the government and publishing leaked documents.

In a February article on the situation in Oman, The New York Times mentioned a Facebook group dedicated to the Omani ‘uprising’ called ‘March 2 uprising for dignity and freedom’.

It attracted several thousand users almost immediately, but if you look it up today, you’ll notice the group no longer exists. Furthermore, just a couple of days ago, popular local forum Al Harah was blocked as well.

The big question is, why? I’m afraid I can’t provide the answers, but I know one thing for sure; media and Internet censorship can no longer silence the truth. Omanis have now experienced what it’s like to voice their opinions and speak freely, so there’s no way it’s going to be taken away from them ever least not without a good fight!