Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Censorship and incitement in the Arab world

Arab governments are experts in the tasks of “stifling public debate, suppressing political discussion and imposing limits on thought and expression,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-NY), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia at a congressional hearing Tuesday. He, along with three other experts on the issue, discussed the current state of freedom of expression across the Middle East and North Africa, and its implications for relations both within the region and with the United States.

The presentations of both Joel Campagna, Middle East Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Richard Eisendorf, Senior Program Manager for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House, focused on the current situation across the region. They gave numerous examples of the barriers to free expression, criticism and comment, most notably restrictive legislation, state control of media and harassment and assault of journalists and activists.

Recent years have seen a rise in the use of the Internet as a tool for free discussion that would not be permitted in the regular print media, but Eisendorf said that governments are now seeking to gain greater control even over this medium of dissent. He said that measures taken have included the arrest of bloggers, the retention of a monopoly over Internet service providers, and a requirement that all users on websites register their name and email address, thus removing any possibility of anonymity.

Egypt was raised as a cause for particular concern by the speakers. Campagna said the Committee to Protect Journalists had this year deemed Egypt- a leading recipient of U.S. foreign assistance- "one of the world's world backsliders for political freedom."

Yet it is through claims to be protecting freedom of expression that many countries defend the publication of extremist or racist content. This new element to the debate was introduced by Kenneth Jacobson, Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Jacobson pointed out the anti-Semitism is expressed regularly in the media of the Arab world, drawing attention to cartoons that depict Jews and Israelis as hook-nosed and money hungry, as Nazis, as snakes, and as the puppeteers behind the U.S. While he recognized the right to criticize Israel – the right, in his example, to the political viewpoint that the Palestinians should not have to pay the price for something that Europeans did to Jews – he asserted that it regularly comes down to racist propaganda.

In the words of Ackerman, “the problem is that in the Middle East, where the press is not free, where there are rules for what you can and cannot say, the fact that these forms of hate-speech are not prohibited, while observing out loud or in print about, say the health of a nation’s president can land one in jail, indicates an obvious and dangerous form of state endorsement.” Governments are, in other words, effectively presenting these opinions as their own.

“The same governments that say they can’t take small steps toward normalizing relations with Israel because of the expected public outcry are some of the very same governments using their government owned, government sanctioned or government controlled press and media to feed their public stories of imaginary Israeli massacres, Jewish blood libels and…copies of the Protocols of the Elders and Mein Kampf,” he added.

It is clear that restriction of freedom of expression is severe in the Middle East. However, several suggestions were made for ways in which progress could be made. Eisendorf recommended that Washington stand in solidarity with journalists and call for their release, and also emphasized the importance of funding organizations that defend freedom of conscience and human rights in general on the ground. In addition, he suggested that prominent U.S. citizens engage with old and new foreign media to share and discuss views, pointing out that popular television station Al Jazeera regularly hosts foreign guests.


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