Date: Tuesday 26 February 2008
Subj: Arab information ministers vote to limit information.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
ARAB INFORMATION MINISTERS VOTE TO LIMIT INFORMATION . . .
At the request of Egypt and with the support of Saudi Arabia, the Arab Ministers of Information gathered in Cairo on 12 February 2008 to consider a new charter to regulate Satellite TV content. Entitled 'Principles for Organising Satellite TV in the Arab World', the charter is both defensive and defiant, aimed at protecting Arab regimes and Islam, whilst defying all advocates and sponsors of progress, openness and liberty. Qatar (home to Al Jazeera TV) and Lebanon were the only Arab states to object to the charter. All other Arab states agreed to adopt it, with the Egyptian information minister, Anas al-Fiqi, saying his country would be the first to implement the charter.
The charter requires that satellite broadcasting not offend the leaders or national and religious symbols in the Arab world, and not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values. It must conform to the religious and ethical values of Arab society, taking into account its religions, prophets, sects and symbols, and it must protect Arab identity from the harmful effects of globalisation.
The Arab Committee for Human Rights (ACHR) immediately issued a strong condemnation of the Cairo Charter and expressed its support for the Arab TV channels targeted by the resolution. The ACHR also called on Arab civil society and journalist organisations to "actively stand up" against the policy, which it called an attempt "to return the Arab media sector to the era that was prevailing two decades ago before the revolution in satellite channels, worldwide web and unlimited media". (Link 1)
Dr. Agnes Callamard, executive director of ARTICLE 19, an independent human rights organisation that promotes freedom expression condemned the charter, saying, "These principles constitute a major set back to freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the Arab world. They attempt to muzzle what has become the main source of independent news and information for millions of people in the region. Once again, intolerance and control prevail over freedom and the free and diverse flow of information." (Link 2)
Menassat.com, a website that focuses on news, trends and events concerning the media in the 22 Arab League states, reports that a plan to set up a regional commission for Arab media will be presented to the next meeting of the Arab Ministers of Information in June. Arab sources are saying that the commission would control the implementation of the charter and receive complaints about any breaches of its articles. (Link 3)
The charter contains penalties for those broadcasters that violate the rules: first a warning, followed by the freezing of work permits and the confiscation of materials, equipment and funds, and ultimately cancellation of the station's permit.
. . . BUT CAN THEY TURN BACK THE TIDE?
Private satellite TV is a relative new phenomenon in the Middle East, arising in the early 1990s as the Arab world was craving more Arab reporting on Gulf War One. The growth in private satellite channels has broken the government monopoly on what gets to go to the airwaves.
As independent satellite medium has developed, producers have increasingly stretched the boundaries, making forays into taboo topics such as religion and governance. Then live talk-show and call-in programs started to appear, broadcasting criticism of Arab governments and of Islam. For example, as Associated Press (AP) reports, "Talk shows have challenged authority, such as when [Qatar's] Al-Jazeera's often raucous 'The Opposite Direction' featured a discussion of police abuses in the Arab world. Or else they take on taboo topics, such as a call-in show on Lebanon's LBC that dealt with the controversial case of a Saudi woman who was gang-raped then sentenced to prison and whipping for mingling with a man to whom she wasn't related." (Link 4)
On 21 February 2006, Syrian-born critic of Islam Dr Wafa Sultan was interviewed on Al-Jazeera's "The Opposite Direction". A six minute clip of her debate was subsequently posted to YouTube and has been watched more than one million times since, making her an international sensation and earning her a place in TIME magazine's 2006 list of the most 100 influential people in the world.
But times are changing. In Egypt in May 2007, Al-Jazeera journalist Howayda Taha was charged with "harming Egypt's national interest", sentenced in absentia to six months in jail and fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds for "possessing material containing untrue information". She had been arrested in Egypt in January 2007 but returned to Qatar after being released on bail. She had been filming a documentary containing reconstructions of torture in a police station. Taha appealed the decision and on Monday 11 February the court overturned the prison sentence but ordered her to pay the fine. (Link 5)
Talking to AP, Egyptian broadcaster Khairi Ramadan called the charter a "huge step backward", adding, "Free speech in Egypt will not be the only victim here, it's the whole Arab world. There are serious fears of this charter and the bigger danger is to come." (Link 4)
CHRISTIAN SATELLITE CONTENT
The formulation of the charter doubtless involved a deal whereby the clerics agreed to protect the Arab regimes from the rising tide of militant political Islam if the Arab regimes agreed to protect Islam from the progressives, liberals and rising tide of openness.
The charter is full of narrow, vague and undefined, terms like protecting 'Arab identity' and 'social harmony', that apostaphobic dictators of Islam are bound to exploit against Christian programs.
The director of Arab Vision, a media organisation that produces content for Christian satellite stations, comments: "The new charter can be invoked at any time it pleases the authorities, against any broadcast that is critical of political rulers or Islam and Islamic habits. It seems to me that the charter is mostly aimed against radical Islamic programs, but the reality in the Arab world is, whenever the authorities want to put pressure on radical Islam, they feel obliged to 'balance' that by also suppressing some Christian liberties. Thereby they try to avoid giving the impression that they are against Islam.
"Presently, there are no satellite broadcasters based in the Arab world that broadcast Christian TV programs. The dozen or so Arabic Christian satellite channels are all based outside the Arab World. My worry is, however, that the new media charter may also be used against the organisations that produce programs for these satellite stations. Many of those are actually based in the Arab world, and for them, this charter is a worry.
"It is totally unclear how the charter will be implemented, so it is a matter of wait and see. But it is certainly a sword of Damocles that can be used at any time against our evangelistic work in the Arabic media. It is also true, however, that the dictatorial Arabic governments do not really need this sort of charter to stop Christians producing evangelistic programs. In most Arab countries the authorities do as they please anyway. The lack of a recourse to the law is one of the greatest problems for Christians in the Arab World."
1) New Arab media charter seen as censorship tool. 18 Feb 2008 http://www.magharebia.com/cocoon/awi/xhtml1/en_GB/features/awi/features/2008/02/18/feature-03
2) ARTICLE 19 condemns the adoption of the 'Principles for Organising Satellite TV in the Arab World' charter agreed yesterday by the Arab Ministers of Information in Egypt.
13 February 2008. http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/arab-satelite-pr.pdf
Arab satellite charter major setback to press freedom, say IFEX members.
21 Feb 08 http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/90875/
3) Arab Ministers finally agree - on limiting press freedom. 15 Feb 2008
4) Arab Ministers Adopt Satellite TV Rules
By Maggie Michael. CAIRO, Egypt (AP). 16 Feb 2008
5) Arab states plan TV crackdown.
By Heba Saleh in Cairo. 14 February 2008
For further comments and opinions see:
Arab media code 'risk to freedom'. Aljazeera, 15 Feb 2008
EDITORIAL: Do not impede Arab growth
By MIDDLE EAST TIMES, 15 February 2008
New media restrictions signal authoritarian regimes worries of citizens' awakening. The Associated Press, 15 February 2008 http://www.iht.com/bin/printfriendly.php?id=10094065
Charter restricts Arab media. Arab Vision