Bound and Gagged: Silent Censorship in the Arab Press

Article excerpt

On February 12, 2008, information ministers from the 22 member states of the Arab League met in Cairo to discuss the issue of censorship. The result of the meeting was a charter for a decidedly paternalistic regional media code that would allow host countries to annul or suspend the license of any broadcaster found in violation of its rules. The document further stipulated that satellite networks must not damage "national unity," that programming should "conform with the religious and ethical values of Arab society," and that it should refrain from impugning God or the various sects of Islam. Qatar and Lebanon, which have traditionally maintained the most open presses in the region, were the only two countries to oppose the charter. Yet if either or both countries choose to restrict journalistic freedoms to appease their neighbors, they will effectively make the charter's application universal. These new developments serve as a severe reminder of the profound fragility of press freedoms in the Arab world.

Press restrictions are by no means novel in the region, although they have been less severe on satellite television. For decades most Arab countries were notorious for permitting only state-sponsored and state-approved television. But now, there are more than 200 Arabic-language satellite channels. Since its first appearance in the region in 1991, satellite television has surpassed its traditional state-run counterparts to become the primary source of information in the Middle East and North Africa. While none of the more popular stations are wholly independent from ties to their host countries, a few have escaped their host countries' historically stringent censorship.

With the advent of the Cairo charter, however, an uncertain future lies ahead for such stations. Most prominent among these is Al Jazeera, which boasts a viewership of 40 million and a reputation for professionalism throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Nevertheless, since its launch in 1996, the Qatar-based Arabic satellite television network has received extraordinarily harsh criticism from within the Arab world and outside it. Islamic groups denounce the network for its coverage of religiously and culturally taboo issues, and the US government condemns the network for airing tapes of terrorists beheading foreigners in Iraq.

Yet at the same time, Al Jazeera has received praise worldwide for its relatively non-partisan news coverage, as well as its willingness to address subjects that other Arabic news outlets typically avoid. For instance few if any other major Arabic stations have interviewed Israeli citizens about their country's political decisions.

Until recently, those sympathetic to Al Jazeera celebrated the network's commitment to openness as its greatest asset. However, throughout early 2008, Al Jazeera and other Arabic news outlets came under increasing pressure to censor their content in order to meet their patron states' standards of acceptable reporting. Stations that rely on local rulers for funding felt these pressures deeply. …