Arab Information Ministers Vote to Limit Information

General February 26, 2008


World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis


By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

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
(<
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WLoasfOLpQ >) 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 <
http://www.arabvision.org/ >, 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."

Elizabeth Kendal
rl-research@crossnet.org.au

Links

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
ALSO
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 2008http://www.menassat.com/?q=en/news-articles/2968-arab-ministers-finally-agree-limiting-press-freedom


4) Arab Ministers Adopt Satellite TV Rules
By Maggie Michael. CAIRO, Egypt (AP). 16 Feb 2008
http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5h0FObtNpBWfD5zX9B6z_VNRjV9wwD8UQUSPG1

5) Arab states plan TV crackdown.
By Heba Saleh in Cairo. 14 February 2008
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/defbca60-daa0-11dc-9bb9-0000779fd2ac.html
HOWAYDA TAHA:http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/paperchase/2008/02/egypt-appeals-court-overturns-sentence.php


For further comments and opinions see:

Arab media code 'risk to freedom'. Aljazeera, 15 Feb 2008
http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/E32D7886-D7C8-4238-902B-E570D7630AFA.htm

EDITORIAL: Do not impede Arab growth
By MIDDLE EAST TIMES, 15 February 2008
http://www.metimes.com/Editorial/2008/02/15/editorial_do_not_impede_arab_growth/9660/


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 Visionhttp://www.arabvision.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=182&Itemid=1

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