Thursday, March 15, 2012

Elizabeth Palmer at Carleton

On Wednesday I covered a lecture by CBS correspondent Elizabeth Palmer for my school newspaper, the Charlatan.

Ottawa, There would have been no Arab uprising if not for modern technology, CBS London correspondent Elizabeth Palmer told a group of attendees March 14 at Carleton University.

During the journalism department’s 13th annual Kesterton Lecture, Palmer, who spent most of 2011 in the Middle East covering the Arab Spring, spoke about how cellphones, satellite television, and the use of social media aided the revolutions in countries like Syria and Bahrain.

“The Arab uprising could not have happened without modern information technology, but equally importantly, it couldn’t have happened without leaders who were bizarrely blind to the power of that technology,” said Palmer, who was a bureau chief and senior correspondent for the CBC based in Moscow prior to joining CBS.

She said dictators in the region had ‘no plan B’ to tackle the surge in technology, and that state media had taken a backseat to Arab satellite television.

“The fact is that millions of Arabs by the 2000 s knew that state media didn't deliver information, but propaganda,” Palmer said.

Arab satellite television channels, especially Al Jazeera, had brought about a shock in the Arab world by encouraging public discussion and promoting hot-button topics, she said.

“Israel was discussed openly for the first time and so were human rights violations,” Palmer said. “This rippled throughout the Arab world and it did a complete end run around the whole state controlled media — it became a reality check for people in times of crisis.”

According to Palmer cellphones had also been a key component in the uprising in Libya, calling them a “one stop shop-for activist technology.”

She also highlighted the importance of social networking, and said the mainstream media’s ability to pick up on tweets and Facebook pages made Twitter and Facebook powerful tools for political change.

Social networking, Twitter and Facebook, can be catalysts for these great movements,” Palmer said. “But in order for them to become real political cataclysmic shifts, they have to be echoed in the mainstream media and then picked out in diplomatic circles in order for them to impact any lasting political change — and that is exactly what happened.”

At the end of her address, Palmer said that dictatorships, with the aid of surveillance software, will now be playing an electronic game of cat-and-mouse with activists.

“The amount of very good, very scary surveillance software that is now available off the shelf is going to rule a lot of good people inside authoritarian regimes,” she said.

Chris Waddell, director of Carleton's department of journalism and communication, said that the event was intended to provide a more in-depth perspective on one of the most talked about issues in the world today.

"Pretty much the biggest story going on in the world today is what's been happening over the last year in the Middle East," he said. 

“I think what you heard tonight was a lot more than what you read in the newspaper and see on the television – more insight. And that’s what we wanted to do and I think we achieved that.” 

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