AMMAN — Since the events of the Arab Spring began over 16 months ago, advocates of independent media have looked to social media and citizen journalism as means of circumventing censorship in the region and promoting freedom of speech and the press.

Last week, a group of 30 journalists from Jordan and Lebanon, press freedom activists and journalism students came together in a two-day training workshop organised by UNESCO, IREX and the Samir Kassir Foundation that aimed at calling their attention to the importance of press freedoms and the power of social media tools to achieve them.

Organisers said they also had sought through the course to train the participants to use social networks such as Facebook to launch awareness and advocacy campaigns.

According to a report by the Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, about three out of 10 Jordanians use social networking sites, while figures from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission indicate that Internet penetration in Jordan reached 45 per cent by the end of September last year.

As part of the course requirements, participants in last week’s workshop launched a Facebook page titled "Youth for press freedoms" to encourage the public to put pressure on decision makers for more press freedoms.

Hala Tweisi, a participating student in the course, said she believes that social media is a more efficient and accessible means of getting one’s message across than traditional media.

"Not all citizens can afford to publish in the traditional media. Thanks to the social networking tools, today one can send a message quickly and can interact with Internet users in no time," she told The Jordan Times at the workshop.

Nonetheless, social media does have some disadvantages, she said, such as the fact that its wide reach and openness raise risks of minors accessing content which is inappropriate or that they do not understand.

As for the workshop, Tweisi said she was hopeful that the page created during the course would open people’s minds to the importance of a free press in maintaining the role of the fourth estate and ensuring public access to accurate information about what is happening in their surroundings.

She and other participants expressed hope that their page would attract people concerned with press freedoms in Jordan and beyond, and spark a discussion on the status and importance of media independence and its relation to current events and political reforms in the region.

Learning from other successful campaigns, the workshop participants will also produce their own online posters and videos to illustrate the importance of media freedom for a healthy society both inside and outside the Kingdom.

The images and videos created by the participants can be viewed on the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/anadigital) and YouTube Channel (www.youtube.com/user/AnaDigitalOrg) of AnaDigital, an online community of civil society organisations that seeks to use social media tools to bring about change in the Middle East and North Africa region.

This event coincided with this year’s World Press Freedom Day and jibed with its theme of “New voices: media freedom helping to transform societies.”

In their joint message on the occasion, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said: “Change in the Arab world has shown the power of aspirations for rights when combined with new and old media. Newfound media freedom is promising to transform societies through greater transparency and accountability. It is opening new ways to communicate and to share information and knowledge. Powerful new voices are rising — especially from young people — where they were silent before.”

As the UN agency with a mandate to defend press freedom, UNESCO has been actively engaged in efforts to improve access to information and improve quality journalism in Jordan, UNESCO Representative in Jordan Anna Paolini said.

Pointing to last week’s workshop as evidence of the rising interest in free speech in the Kingdom, Paolini lauded the rapid growth of a community of young Jordanian men and women who are taking advantage of social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

“Many also manage their own blogs and e-news sites whereby they share information, discuss social and political rights, promote freedom of expression and social cohesion, and demand accountability,” she said.

“Of course, one does not have to agree with every opinion raised in order to appreciate that it is through freedom of expression, thought and access to information that each of us is given the opportunity to share our ideas.”