Arab governments should publicly reject those elements of a proposed regional policy on satellite television broadcasting that would seriously restrict freedom of expression and information, Human Rights Watch said today.
During their meeting in Cairo on February 12, Arab ministers of information adopted “Principles for Organizing Satellite Broadcast and Television Transmission and Reception in the Arab Region.” The document, introduced by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, calls on the regulatory bodies in Arab League member states to ensure that satellite channels broadcasting from their jurisdictions do not “negatively affect social peace, national unity, public order, and public morals” or “defame leaders, or national and religious symbols [of other Arab states].”
Only Qatar and Lebanon publicly opposed the document and its proposed restrictions.
“Arab League governments are trying to stifle one of the few relatively uncensored forms of mass communication in the region,” said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be ashamed for sponsoring a proposal that would extend repression of free speech to airwaves across the region.”
The vaguely worded restrictions that this document places on freedom of expression would seriously impede the right of people in the region to express views critical of the governments and to receive news and commentary reflecting critical opinions. For example, article 5 obliges broadcasters to “protect the supreme interests the Arab states,” and “respect the principle of national sovereignty.” Devising legislation and regulations detailing the implementation of these principles would be left up to individual member states.
The document, intended as guidelines that carry no legal obligations, recommends that the regulatory bodies of Arab League members states confiscate equipment, impose fines, and suspend, refuse to renew or withdraw licenses from satellite channels that authorities deem to have violated those “principles.”
“Many Arab states routinely use this language of ‘state interests’ and ‘national sovereignty’ as an excuse to imprison journalists and intimidate critics,” Stork said. “These so-called principles are nothing but a crude assault on free speech.”
Domestic laws in most Arab states severely restrict freedom of expression and the media. Jordan is the only country with a law guaranteeing freedom of access to information, but even there the Ministry of Interior decides what information is excluded from this freedom of access under broadly worded national security exemptions. On December 12, 2007, Jordan’s Court of Cassation upheld a State Security Court sentence of two years in prison for former parliamentarian Ahmad Oweidi al-‘Abbadi for “disseminating ... news he knows to be false or exaggerated which undermine the psychology of the [Islamic] nation.”
Egypt, one of the document’s sponsors, has repeatedly prosecuted reporters under its penal code for broadly worded “crimes.” On September 13, 2007, a Cairo court sentenced four editors of independent and opposition newspapers for publicizing “false news, statements or rumors that are likely to disturb public order.” In early February 2008, an appeals court upheld the conviction of Al Jazeera reporter Huwaida Taha for “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country” with a documentary about torture in Egyptian police stations.
Saudi Arabia, the other sponsor, has no written penal code and routinely imprisons dissidents for broadly worded charges such as “going beyond the realm of obedience to the ruler.” On December 10, 2007, authorities arrested Saudi blogger Fu’ad al-Farhan, apparently for criticizing the earlier arrest of reform activists in February 2007. He remains in incommunicado detention in Dahban prison in Jeddah without, so far as is known, having been charged.
In Syria, authorities have similarly prosecuted human rights defenders and bloggers on charges of “spreading false news that weaken the spirit of the nation,” for disseminating articles “that harmed the image and security of Syria.”
Iraq has closed down at least three satellite TV stations’ operations since 2004, when it permanently denied Al Jazeera to have a presence in the country. In November 2006, authorities closed al-Zaqra and Salah al-Din stations’ offices because they allegedly incited sectarian tensions following their coverage of the verdict against former president Saddam Hussein. A spokesman for the interior ministry justified the January 2007 closing of the office of al-Sharqiyya satellite station and the September 2006 closing of al-Arabiya satellite channel on similar grounds, without recourse to the courts or publicly demonstrating that these broadcasts led to violence.
Last year authorities in Tunisia refused to accept the accreditation of Lotfi Hajji as correspondent of Al Jazeera. Hajji is also president of the independent Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, which the government has refused to legalize.
Implementing the document’s operative articles would violate international law and standards on freedom of expression, in particular article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protect the “right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Exercise of this right cannot be restricted on grounds such as “national security,” “public order,” or the “respect for the rights and reputations of others” when these restrictions are defined in an overly broad way. The Johannesburg Principles on freedom of expression clarify that such restrictions on freedom of expression are only legitimate where they “protect a country’s existence or its territorial integrity against the use or threat of force, or its capacity to respond to the use or threat of force,” but not “to protect interests unrelated to national security, including, for example, to protect a government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing, or to conceal information about the functioning of its public institutions, or to entrench a particular ideology, or to suppress industrial unrest.”
“Qatar and Lebanon have shown that Arab support for tight restrictions on satellite broadcasting is not unanimous,” said Stork. “Other Arab states should follow their example and speak up for media freedoms by publicly opposing this document.”