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Arab Assault on Free Speech

May 24, 2008
A Look at the Arab League Satellite Broadcasting Charter
Memri Dispatch 440
By L. Azuri*                                                                                    

int-al.gifTable of Contents:                                                                   

  • Introduction
  • The Controversial Articles of the Charter
  • The Driving Force Behind the Charter: Egypt and Saudi Arabia
  • Egyptian Information Minister: We Will Fight Satellite           
  • Egyptian Journalists Syndicate Head: The Arab Governments are Seeking to Renew their Iron Grip on the Media
  • Qatar and Lebanon Oppose the Charter
  • Qatari Columnist: The Charter Is Aimed at Punishing Al-Jazeera
  • Al-Jazeera: The Charter is a Collective Arab Assault on Free Speech
  • Notes

Introduction

On February 12, 2008, Arab information ministers signed the "Charter of Principles for Regulating Satellite Broadcasting in the Arab Region." The charter, and the summit at which it was signed, were initiated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a bid to hobble the satellite TV networks, which had been provoking their regimes. The document was signed by all the Arab League countries except Qatar and Lebanon.      

The charter sparked much criticism within media circles in the Arab world, on the grounds that it stifles freedom of expression and increases the Arab regimes' control over the media. Controversy focused on several articles that state that the satellite channels must defend national interests, preserve Arab solidarity, protect the values of Islam, and refrain from defaming Arab leaders. They also stated that channels violating these principles would have their license revoked.

Following are the main points of the charter, and excerpts from reactions to it in the Arab press.

The Controversial Articles of the Charter

The articles of the charter that sparked controversy in the Arab world enjoined the satellite channels to "refrain from jeopardizing social peace, national unity, and public order"; to "respect... the sovereignty of each Arab country over its property, and acknowledge the right of each Arab League state to propose and pass laws [regarding the principles set out in the charter] at its own discretion..."; to "devote no less than 20% of their scheduling to [programs in] Arabic..."; to "refrain from programming that incites to terrorism or violence of any sort, while distinguishing between [terrorism and violence], on the one hand, and the right to resist occupation, on the other..."; to "preserve the religious and moral values of Arab society, [including] the family unit and social integrity"; to "refrain from calling for religious and sectarian extremism"; to "avoid all programming that disrespects God, the monotheistic religions, the prophets, religious sects, or the religious leaders of various groups"; to "refrain from producing or broadcasting materials that include explicit images or manifestations of wanton or sexual [behavior]"; to "avoid programming that encourages smoking or consumption of alcoholic beverages..."; to "protect the Arab identity from the negative influences of globalization and to preserve the unique characteristics of Arab society..."; to "refrain from all programming that contravenes or jeopardizes inter-Arab solidarity or cooperation and integration among Arab countries..."; to "refrain from defaming their national and religious leaders"; and to "stress Arab abilities and strengths, especially those that receive international recognition and acclaim..."

The charter permits the suspension or revocation of the licenses of satellite channels found violating the charter or violating laws legislated in its spirit.(1)

The Driving Force Behind the Charter: Egypt and Saudi Arabia

The initiators of the charter, and of the summit at which it was signed, were Egypt and Saudi Arabia. According to the assessment by the Egyptian press, the two countries aimed to restrict the broadcasting of political programs and daily talk shows - especially those on the Qatari Al-Jazeera channel - which have lately been angering the Egyptian and Saudi regimes.(2)

Both these regimes have recently clamped down on media. Saudi Arabia stopped the broadcasting of the live news show "Al-Ikhbariyya Al-Saudiyya" on the grounds that it "confused" the public.(3) Egypt closed down several satellite channels: Al-Fajr, in January of this year; Al-Hikma, in February, for 20 days; and Al-Baraka, a channel focusing on Islamic economics, on February 19, for failing to obtain a broadcasting permit from the security apparatuses. Egypt also cancelled the launch of several new satellite channels, including Al-Hayat Al-Misriyya, which was to begin pilot broadcasts on January 18, and the new religious satellite channel Taiba. The Al-Sa'a channel was prevented from airing its daily show "Sa'a Bisa'a," and the Al-Nass channel decided to produce some programs on social issues [in addition to its regular religious programs] to keep the authorities from closing it down under the new broadcasting charter.(4)

Egyptian Information Minister: We Will Fight Satellite Channels that Undermine Arab Values and Incite Violence

Egyptian Information Minister Anas Al-Fiqi, who headed the summit at which the charter was signed, told Al-Arabiya TV in an interview that the charter was meant to regulate, not restrict, satellite broadcasting. However, he added that anyone watching the satellite channels today could not fail to get the impression that there was a "destructive campaign" to undermine Arab values, that was "the work of people who spread ignorance, advice harmful to women, and fatwas [issued] by unauthorized persons."(5)

In his speech at the opening of the summit, Al-Fiqi said: "We believe that our duty is not only to inform society about world events, but also to protect it from foreign influences that might [harm] it. [We have reached the point] where we no longer merely wish to innovate, develop and improve the content of the media, but to [conduct] an uncompromising struggle against [those who] promote ignorance and backwardness, against outmoded ideas, against the discarding of values and traditions, against the undermining of the will of peoples and governments, and against other negative phenomena which we see on today's satellite channels. We must stand fast against the dangerous changes occurring in the Arab satellite media..."(6)

Egyptian Journalists Syndicate Head: The Arab Governments are Seeking to Renew their Iron Grip on the Media

Egyptian Journalists Syndicate Secretary-General Salah Al-Din Hafez criticized the information ministers' decision to ratify the charter, writing in the Qatari daily Al-Watan : "The past decade, which has been characterized by a revolution of information, technology and free press throughout the world, was marked by the advent of a new [kind of] journalism and open media, mostly in the form of private newspapers and satellite channels, that pushed back the boundaries of freedom. They raised issues that used to be taboo, brought [previously] sacred topics into debate, and crossed boundaries that used to be inviolable. This was the main [development] that frightened the Arab governments, which hastened to [end] this media chaos and to regain control [over the media] before it could generate developments that [they considered] even more dangerous...

"The Arab governments' hold over the satellite channels has weakened, and [will weaken further] in the future; they can no longer directly control and influence the channels. The same has happened with the private press, which has greatly expanded in recent years [at the expense of] the official or national press - because the [private press], like the satellite channels, provides the public with a media service that the official press and TV do not...

"The media world thus became full of bold new [enterprises] that broke all taboos. Some were objective, aimed at meeting the needs of the public, while others overstepped [the boundaries of good taste], seeking to excite [the public] and to gain [popularity], to the point where they [began to] spread lies, deception and depravity, [or else] to incite to hatred for the other and to vile religious extremism...

"[Our governments] exploited some of the slander and the deviant [ideas] that appeared in some of the newspapers and on some of the satellite channels, in order to undermine the entire [system] and to renew their iron grip on the media, which they now considered to be in a state of anarchy. [They did this] sometimes with draconian laws and harsh penalties, and other times with charters... for regulating and hobbling [the media].

"This is precisely [the function of] the new charter issued last week by the information ministers... Anyone who manages to avoid [prosecution under] the [media] laws comes up against the [various] documents and charters [regulating the media]. Where will journalists find refuge when they are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea?

"I express my thoughts and fears, [remembering] our previous bitter experience [with anti-media measures, such as] laws restricting press freedom; severe punishments, including imprisonment, for [those] who publish their opinion; persecution that in some countries includes [not only] arrest [but also] kidnapping and assassination; and [other] violations of freedom of opinion and expression which unfortunately give all the Arab countries the world's worst record [in media freedom]..."(7)

A different view was expressed by the syndicate's chairman, Makram Muhammad Ahmad, who defended Egypt's official position and rejected criticism of the charter. In his weekly column in the Egyptian government daily Al-Musawwar , he wrote: "Egypt certainly played an active role in issuing the Charter for Regulating Satellite Broadcasting. However, contrary to what some claim, its main goal [in doing so] was not to impose restrictions... gagging the satellite channels and thus protecting its regime from criticism. It is only aimed at protecting Arab society, its values, and its moral standards, from the danger [posed] by the satellite [channels] in cases where there is chaos and no regulations to protect society, and especially the youth, from images of nudity and depravity, and from programs that instigate civil war, support calls for violence and terrorism, violate people's privacy and [expose] their secrets, undermine [religious] values and defame public figures, or threaten to eradicate the Arab identity [by spreading] the negative influences of globalization..."(8)

Qatar and Lebanon Oppose the Charter

Of the Arab League countries, only Lebanon and Qatar refused to sign the charter. Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Al-Aridi explained, "The Lebanese people want first of all to ensure that Lebanon remains a land of pluralism, freedom, and democracy - a country that is first and foremost Arab, but is [also] independent and free."(9)

In early March, the Lebanese Media Council held a consultative conference on the charter, with the participation of representatives of Lebanese and Arab media outlets. During it, a council member was appointed to assess the charter's compatibility with Lebanese law, and to add Lebanon's comments to it, so that the Lebanese media and Arab media operating in Lebanon would be able to adopt the charter in the future. It was also decided to submit a memorandum to the March 2008 Arab League Summit in Damascus expressing Lebanon's opposition to the charter in its present form.(10)

As for Qatar, its opposition to the charter presumably stems from a desire to protect the Qatari satellite network Al-Jazeera from outside interference. At the information ministers' summit, Qatar was represented not by its information minister but by its Arab League ambassador, who, expressing reservations about the charter, said: "Qatar is unwilling to adopt this charter at present since it is still studying its content and examining its compatibility with Qatari law." The ambassador also stressed that his country's opposition to the charter was not politically motivated.(11)

Qatari Columnist: The Charter Is Aimed at Punishing Al-Jazeera

The Qatari press expressed strong opposition to the charter. Columnist Ibrahim Bakhit wrote in the daily Al-Raya: "Qatar, a pioneer [of the] free press - which surpasses even the West in terms of the quantitative and qualitative achievements [of its media] - was right [to reject the charter]. Under its sponsorship and protection, Al-Jazeera has become a magnificent [enterprise] which will never be buried by this pathetic charter. On the contrary - it will [only] receive more support from free journalists, who will never be gagged by inciting and formulaic [resolutions] like this charter.

"I call on all lovers of freedom to form a broad front to support the Qatari media and to combat these conspiracies... I [also] call upon [Qatar's] leaders to make the country a free zone for all channels and media outlets fleeing the tyranny of the [regimes] that implement this [dangerous] charter. I call on all free men to support Qatar's decision... by every possible means..."(12)

In another Al-Raya article, Bakhit wrote: "Why did all the Arab information ministers - except for Lebanon's and Qatar's - rush to endorse this charter almost unanimously - [a charter] which further restricts the already narrow boundaries of free speech with regulations that violate freedoms? Why do they hide behind religious and national symbols, [when their real goal is] to buttress the[ir leaders'] one-man rule and to protect all their actions and mistakes [from criticism] with a wall of laws and charters?... Qatar was wise to spot the trap set out for its people and for its media, which has broken all the taboos and has fearlessly [joined] the new world of freedom..."(13)

Al-Raya columnist Ahmad Dhiban likewise condemned the charter: "The basic goal of the Arab information ministers' charter is to punish satellite channels that provoke the [Arab] governments, and especially Al-Jazeera, in attempt to control them just as they control the state media... We [too] oppose the defaming of leaders and officials, and also of private citizens. [However,] the problem is that the prohibitions imposed by the Arabs can be interpreted [in different ways] to fit the circumstances, and the governments can thus present any criticism of their policy as [a case of] defaming leaders. [The terms] 'terrorism' and 'incitement to violence and hatred' are likewise open to a wide range of interpretations - especially since the concepts of terrorism and violence [are at the heart of] regional and international issues in which American policy plays a significant role, and which America is exploiting for its own political [ends]..."(14)

Al-Jazeera: The Charter is a Collective Arab Assault on Free Speech

Senior Arab media figures were especially harsh in their criticism of the charter. Al-Jazeera director-general Wadhah Khanfar said that it raised many concerns: "Professional ethics charters must [be formulated by] people in the profession, that is, by journalists and media institutions... Politicians and governments cannot set professional standards for the press. [This charter] impinges on freedom of speech...

"If a national or religious leader is slandered, it is a matter for the law, not for politicians or the government. If a leader feels that he has been assaulted by the media, we have a judicial system to deal with [the matter]."(15)

Al-Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Hussein 'Abd Al-Ghani wrote in the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "The charter... is a grave collective Arab assault on media freedom and on freedom of speech in general. It is the most blatant evidence of the Arab regimes' general tendency to close off, one by one, the areas of freedom, after the brief 'Prague Spring' experienced by the Arab world in 2004-2005..."

Al-Ghani called Article 5 of the charter, which enjoins the satellite channels to respect the sovereignty of the Arab countries, "carte blanche to invent draconian laws restricting the freedom of the press, especially since the charter does not constrain its restrictions by stating that they must comply with international charters of human rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression, or with internationally accepted free press standards..."

He said of the article prohibiting incitement to violence and terrorism: "Who [can] say [what counts as 'violence and terrorism'], especially when there is no internationally agreed-upon definition of [the word] 'terrorism'? For example, some think that resisting occupation, as Hamas and Hizbullah are doing, is terrorism..."

On the article calling to preserve Arab solidarity, 'Abd Al-Ghani remarked: "What Arab solidarity? Is there such a thing? If [we] discuss the conflict between Morocco and Algeria, for example, does that undermine Arab solidarity? Or the conflicts between Syria and Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia, or Syria and Qatar?..."(16)
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SOURCE: Memri

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

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Notes

(1) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 13, 2008.
(2) Editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gomhouriya MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim recently criticized Al-Jazeera in his daily column, stating that it broadcast footage of the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots to incite the Egyptian public to participate in the April 6, 2008 general strike that was initiated by several Egyptian opposition parties and movements. Al-Gomhouriya (Egypt), April 7, 2008 (for more on the general strike, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 434, "Egyptian Opposition Call Again for General Strike, Civil Revolt," May 2, 2008, http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=countries&Area=egypt&ID=IA43408.
(3) Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), February 16, 2008.
(4) Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi (Egypt), February 16, 2008; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 4, 2008.
(5) www.alarabiya.net. February 14, 2008.
(6) October (Egypt), February 17, 2008.
(7) Al-Watan (Qatar), February 20, 2008.
(8) Al-Musawwar (Egypt), February 29, 2008.
(9) Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 25, 2008.
(10) Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 5, 2008.
(11) Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 25, 2008.
(12) Al-Raya (Qatar), February 16, 2008.
(13) Al-Raya (Qatar), February 17, 2008.
(14) Al-Raya (Qatar), February 1, 2008.
(15) Al-Raya (Qatar), February 14, 2008.
(16) Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 6, 2008.
 

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