Among the achievements and setbacks in liberties in Arab countries in recent years, increased freedom of information and expression is often cited as being clearly on the positive side of the ledger. But in many countries, traditional and new media continue to face significant challenges, some of them enshrined in law and others in custom.
At a time when the Internet is spoken of as a medium that governments or dictatorial regimes cannot control or manipulate, in Arab countries many websites continue to be blocked or shut down. In fact their managers are often arrested, along with those who write for the websites any content that annoys high ranking government officials. Blocking websites is considered normal and is widely practiced in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, particularly against websites that criticize governments, provide sensitive information that the government does not want circulated to the general public, address sensitive religious issues, or are considered “libertine” (a euphemism for pornographic).
Traditional media outlets face no less difficult conditions, as Gulf countries force censorship of domestic publications and forbid distribution of foreign publications containing controversial articles about the country in question. Levels of freedom of expression vary in these countries; in general Yemen and Kuwait permit greater freedom, while Oman and Saudi Arabia rank at the bottom.
In a December 2006 conference in Amman about media laws in the Gulf states and Yemen, journalists discovered that press and publishing laws in their countries were so similar as to appear copied from one country to another, particularly in areas relating to punishing or criminalizing press activities. These laws blur distinctions between the person of the head of state and his actions, placing both off-limits for criticism. In most Gulf states, with the exception of Yemen, prohibitions against defaming the sacred are taken to cover not only religions and religious symbols but also parliamentary institutions and deputies and the decisions they make in addition to heads of state, foreign governments, and the like.
Another common point among press and publication laws in Gulf countries is that they give governments broad powers to close, suspend, or ban media outlets. All of these states have extensive licensing requirements to allow the publication of any newspaper or periodical and require high levels of financial investment, which amounts to imposing forms of pre-and post-publication censorship.
Journalists participating in the Amman conference agreed on an agenda of actions to begin addressing these problems. First, they will propose specific new language to be added to press and publication laws in order to increase tolerance of freedom of expression. They will work towards the passage of laws enshrining the principle of the free flow and publication of information as an important basis for sustainable development, anti-corruption efforts, and good governance. They will also work for judicial independence and the encouragement of judiciary undertakings to present interpretations more in line with the constitutional texts. Furthermore, journalists agreed on the importance of encouraging civil society groups to take an interest in promoting media freedom, reporting on related developments, and holding governments accountable for meeting their obligations under international conventions on freedom of expression.
Another area needing work is overcoming self-censorship, corruption, and fear among journalists and elevating professional standards. This will involve raising awareness about laws related to the media and encouraging contacts with members of parliament in order to highlight the importance of free media. In addition, journalists need to write codes of professional conduct and set up independent press councils to help develop professional standards and protect media workers. During the recent Amman conference, journalists discussed how to establish a Gulf media watchdog group to publicize violations of media freedoms and create a unified strategy to defend them.
Gulf and Yemeni journalists believe that political reform and development cannot be achieved without guaranteeing the independence and freedom of media outlets. They also know that governments will spare no effort to weaken their opponents, either by continuing old repressive methods or by devising new ones. This is why journalists at the Amman conference closed with an urgent appeal to all those who wish to support the democratic reform process—inside their countries and interested international parties—to stand by journalists in their efforts to achieve greater freedom of expression.
Rafia Al Talei is an Omani journalist. This article was translated from Arabic by Judd King.