Freedom of expression in the Middle East suffered a major setback on 12 February 2008 when 21 information ministers of the Arab League agreed on a new charter which requires satellite tv broadcasting “not to offend leaders in the Arab world” and to “protect Arab identity from the harmful effects of globalisation”.
Broadcasting across borders via a satellite has revolutionised tv in the Middle East. It has opened up the possibility to create new kinds of tv programmes and news channels which have not been censored or restricted by the government of that particular country in which the viewer is based.
On 12 February 2008, at the request of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, 23 information ministers from the Arab countries met in Cairo with the aim to put this newly acquired space for freedom of expression to an end. At the meeting, a non-binding charter entitled “Principles for Organising Satellite TV in the Arab World” was adopted by all member states of the Arab League with the exception of Lebanon and Qatar. Lebanon was the only state to oppose the document while Qatar, home of the popular independent tv-network Al Jazeera, abstained from voting.
The charter requires satellite tv broadcasting not to offend leaders in the Arab world, damage “social peace and national unity and public order,” or call into question God or the monotheistic religions. Programmes should also conform to the religious and ethical values of Arab society, and protect Arab identity from the harmful effects of globalisation.
Restrictions imposed by the document are for instance:
The charter urges member states to introduce all necessary measures in their national legislations to ensure that the document’s principles are fully implemented. And if media groups do not adhere to the principles, they can have their licences suspended, withdrawn or not renewed, and even have their equipment confiscated.
The international human rights organisation Article 19 strongly condemns the adoption of the charter which it says “attempts to muzzle independent news sources and constitute a major setback to freedom of the press in the Arab World. The provisions, if implemented, will inevitably mute and hinder the only avenue for free expression in the region: satellite tv.”
In a press release Article 19 pointed out that the provisions directly contradict international and regional covenants that guarantee the right to information and freedom of expression, including Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights.
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo) – 13 February 2008:
‘With the exception of Qatar, Arab ministers of information submit a document imposing tough restrictions on freedom of satellite transmission’
Article 19 – 13 February 2008:
‘Arab Charter for Satellite TV: A major setback to freedom of expression in the region’
Committee to Protect Journalists – 15 February 2008:
‘Arab governments move to restrict satellite TV’
Reporters Without Borders – 13 February 2008:
‘Arab League adopts strict rules for satellite TV stations’
Article in Danish language
Jyllands-Posten – 21 February 2008:
‘Arabisk Liga opfordrer til censur’