Remembering 1996’s Sana’a Declaration, whose articles were never implementedArabs still craving for a free media [Archives:2003/664/Opinion]

September 1 2003

By Mahboob Ali*
Chairman of the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate

We can easily presume that the strong relationship between freedom and human rights is not that representing the present or is specified to a certain country or region. It is rather a universal humane relation servicing humanity as a whole and not a certain group of people. This is despite the fact that the issue of democracy and human rights has been raised more frequently lately by the West, calling it the basis of 'modern civilization'. Freedom is certainly not confined to laws and declarations of today, but is mentioned long before the term democracy came into existence, and it was mentioned in all celestial religions.
The dialogue between civilizations of the East and the West has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors but has recently been manipulated by the logic of power and not the power of logic. Selfish interests in international relations have taken over everything else including the fate of vulnerable nations, who have had their freedoms and rights stripped off by foreign powers in occupations and colonies. But even after liberation, generation after generation, the same nations had also been compelled to give up their freedoms to the power of oppressive rulers within their own countries.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been approved on 10 December 1948 following the end of the bitter World War II. However, the declaration was not compulsory even for those countries that had signed it. It was neither a condition in international bilateral or multilateral relationships. Its articles and ideas were never enforced when drafting laws and regulations, including constitutions of countries that signed it, including Arab states, of which some did not approve the declaration until almost fifty years later, i.e., in 1994.
The same thing applies to a number of similar agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed in 1966, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of 1976, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, Convention on the Political Rights of Women of 1952, Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic of Persons and Exploitation of Prostitution of Others of 1949, Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, and many others. They have all been signed by most Arab countries, but were rarely implemented on the ground.
Due to the fact that Arab governments disregarded civil society organizations and because of the many barriers set on their way, just as the case with political parties and organizations and other professional syndicates, the issue of human rights has become a weapon in the hands of the opposition against ruling authorities, resulting in greater governmental control of the media in an unprecedented way to prevent the opposition from using it. This step made the media as powerful as military establishments as both entities are trump cards in the hands of rulers to preserve their power, prevent parliaments or entities elected by the people from having any role whatsoever.
Political and civil rights are not the only ones disregarded in Arab countries because of their religious, cultural, or intellectual background, but Arab women were also unfortunate in not getting their political rights compared to men who control much more power, but share miseries equally with women.
Those rights were never granted to the Arab people, no matter what group they were from. The Arab official media are also been held captive in the hands of governments. Their wings were clipped off so they cannot fly high in the wide skies and horizons. On the contrary, official media are under continuous surveillance and clamped with heavy chains and allowed to move only within a strict scrutiny.
Most Arab laws that regulate the profession of journalism, for example, are full of punishments and prohibitions that high mountains cannot carry and human souls cannot withstand. Those regulations have been preventing the Arab media from exploiting their potentials or competing with the rest of the world.
The advance permission and censorship required for newspapers to be published are conditions set by most Arab press regulations. The injustice continues in prohibiting the ownership and running of private electronic media (TV, radio) in most Arab states, including those countries that claim to have freedom of the press. The injustice goes further in considering a writer who writes his opinion a criminal who is subject to imprisonment and treatment as any other culprit based on the 'punishment' articles of Arab press regulations.
Press freedom in Arab countries should not be defined to those who practice journalism alone. It is rather the responsibility of journalists along with all citizens and parties concerned because the freedom of the press is the label of all public freedoms and the compass of democracy and mirror of the culture of human rights.
The responsibility in spreading our culture as Arabs to the rest of the world lies mainly on the press. This is done side by side with other educational and civil society organizations that are working on restructuring the curricula. Hence journalists should consider this their priority.
To achieve this, Henrikas Yushkiavitshus, Assistant Director-General for Communication, Information and Informatics, UNESCO, had called upon Arab countries to cope with the trend towards democratization that is taking place everywhere in the world. A seminar on “Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media” held in Sana'a in January 1996 was organized for this purpose by the UNESCO in coordination with the media department of the UN.
Mr. Yushkiavitshus said during the concluding session of the seminar that the UNESCO's Communication, Information and Informatics sector would provide financial aid taken from the international community to support training activities of journalists and would provide assistance to member countries that wish to enhance their media laws and regulations to conform to democratic standards and to transfer their national radio, TV stations and news agencies to the public domain, where they would enjoy complete and true independence.
The seminar that involved around 300 journalist from Arab countries along with representative of governmental institutions, NGOs, and International organizations, was concluded by issuing a statement called the 'Sana'a Declaration'** that emphasized the importance of providing constructional and legal guarantees for the freedom of expression and the press. The declaration considered the tendency of Arab regimes to set up 'red lines' a constraint to human rights, which cannot be acceptable in any terms. It also referred to the importance of linking international assistance given to Arab countries to the improvement of independent printed and electronic media, which would enhance overall freedom of the Arab media.
In this specific subject, and in order to limit the influence of Arab regimes on the media, the declaration stressed the need to encourage journalists to establish independent press institutions that they would own and finance themselves. It also demanded the abolishing of any legal punishment. The declaration emphasized the need to eliminate any legal constraints that would prevent journalists from setting up their own independent media establishments.
Seven years have passed since the seminar was concluded, and almost none of the objectives mentioned in the declaration were achieved on the ground. This is mainly because governments avoided taking any steps to liberalize the Arab media. It is important to mention that journalists themselves have nothing to be blamed for when questioning the reasons behind the failure to implement the Sana'a Declaration. On the contrary, journalists are the ones who are eager to achieve the declaration's goals because it would be a step towards allowing the winds of change to blow and help develop and enhance all walks of life in our communities. This could only happen if the Arab media are freed from the heavy shackles that made them suffer so long.
The obligation to free the media in the Arab world is not the responsibility of certain groups or sectors in the Arab world. It is the responsibility of all of us. We need to realize that none of our democracy's pillars can be straightened in a time the environment for free media to emerge is inexistent.
Once again, I assert that the free media is the gateway to public freedoms and is our truthful compass that would guide us to the right path leading to achievement of democracy and human rights for all the people with no discrimination at all.
Human rights, which includes freedom of the media, is a complete picture that cannot be disintegrated because once a piece of it is gone, it loses its meaning.
Similarly, human rights cannot be separated from its eternal twin in spirit and ambition, i.e., democracy.
* Mahboob Ali is a prominent Yemeni journalist and writer. He is now the chairman of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, which is an independent entity defending journalists' rights and working to enhance media conditions in the country

** Sana'a Declaration can be found on the UNESCO website at:'a.htm