The Executive Director of CMF, MENA to YT ” We Want to Establish The Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf Arab Press Freedom Award” [Archives:1999/51/Law & Diplomacy]

December 20 1999

Said Essoulami, originally from Morocco, is living in London. For eleven years he worked as the head of the Middle East Program in the Article 19. More than a year ago, he and a group of Arab journalists and lawyers formed a new independent organization specializing in media freedom issues. The London-based Center for Media Freedom – Middle East and North Africa is now doing a good job in the field of media promotion. Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi, Yemen Times Managing Editor, met Mr. Essoulami, the Executive Director of the center, in Jordan and filled the following interview.
Q: Could you please tell us something about the center and its main business?
A:The center was established more than a year ago. It specializes in media issues. I had the chance to meet the late Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf to discuss these ideas and projects. He was ready to help us and to be the first member of the center. The center is a research publishing and campaign organization. Our main objective is to try to influence policies which may help to promote a free independent journalistic media in the Middle East and North Africa. One of our immediate objectives is to see how we can protect journalist against the policy of censorship. The most horrible form of censorship is killing the journalist. We have expressed our anger concerning the fate of Algerian journalists, where there were about 16 journalists who have been killed by opposition groups. We are also concerned about the detention of journalists. There are at least 15 Arab journalists in jails. We are seeking their release.
Our center will soon launch a campaign on their behalf. The campaign will be launched in March of next year. So, this campaign will concentrate on some activities on the behalf of these journalists on the third of May. The center also is a research center in the sense that we analyze the legal restrictions on journalists. Mainly this legal restriction is contained in laws like penal courts or any other regulations that affect the work of journalists.
We also try to look at the other kinds of restrictions on the media, like economic, political, social and cultural restrictions, which may constitute an obstacle for the development of free media. The center consists of 15 members. They are from different countries such as Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and we had the late Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf representing himself, not the country. I was the professor, secretary, and the director of the center, and I have group of people who used to work with me as a research director publication. They got a lot of funding, not seeking to be a big operation immediately. I mean that they have a strategy of going slowly.
The important strategy is that we give the main issues priority in our activities. I think that the main priority is to have a mechanism which protects journalists. Unfortunately, we do not have any regional mechanism, or regional courts. There are no Arab treaties for journalists except the is Sana’a declaration, actually drafted by Arab journalists in Sana’a in 1996. The declaration was endorsed and approved by the general assembly of UNISCO, plus all the other countries adopted the declaration. That is very important for us because it was the only document in the region which actually highlighted the situation of the media, especially from censorship’s point of view, and to recommend important solutions to allow the media and journalist to work independently of the government and in better conditions.
We have this policy document, which is accepted by the whole community of Arab journalists and governments who indorses the institutions. Our priority, for example is to work on behalf of journalists to do whatever we can to release them by contacting government and by publishing their cases to the media, by trying to inform the public opinion in the countries where they are detained allowing Arabs to learn of their situations. Some of them have been imprisoned for more than ten years for publishing an article that has been interpreted as a threat to national security. We also need the journalists in the Arab countries to inform the public and also themselves, and by writing to the embassies in the country. This is the only network of media freedom which can function in the Arab countries. Whenever there is something going on, there is a journalist. This network activates and intervenes whenever journalists have problems. There is also another thing to highlight, in which a journalist works to highlight the struggle of the journalists who pay heavy penalties for the sake of giving the public the truth for expressing themselves freely and denouncing corruption. We want to establish a prize in memory of our late friend Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, who wanted to establish an Arab Press Freedom Bureau. It is the Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf Arab Press Freedom Prize.
We want to start communicating this idea in newspapers to other institutions who may help us. The press in the Arab world is for press freedom , which could be symbolic of what is given to free journalists in the written press, and we want to organize it to be something established for our center. The anniversary of press freedom is being held every third of May for the Arab world. We will hold this activity by organizing seminars for journalists and publishing their work, and thereby giving to the young journalists some examples of journalism to follow up on in publishing the cases of other journalists.
Q: In your opinion what are the major problems faced by journalists in the Arab world?
A: In the Arab world the major problem is the framework of the Arab countries. The laws and penal court provisions severely the scope of freedom of the press, and provides a heavy barrier which may cross the legislative bounds and the desires of the government. That is a common problem of the framework, which must be changed. One aim of our center, which I have worked on personally, is to file legal affidavits criticizing this law. The center will revisit all these laws again in each country to see and underline the main legal restrictions, and how they operate in practice, and to recommend changes clearly to the government and political parties to allow them to see the things which have to be changed.
There are more obstacles than just political ones. The journalist’s profession is not considered very important by the authorities and the owners of the newspapers. There are also some journalists who are influenced by money. The influence of the advertisers is very negative in many places, advertisements sometimes dictate the editorial policy and the policy of the paper or they seek the certain news of publishing.
Q: How can independent media be independent media and at the same time have to have advertisements, which may help in one way or the other in shaping their opinions?
A: It is a very important question and it is difficult to achieve that kind of independence not just from advertisement but from political parties who own newspapers and their journalists working in this paper.
Regarding the advertisement, I believe that there is no solution. Journalists think by publishing the truth. By producing good journalism, your circulation will increase. People will read it because it is a good paper. Then, if you have access to a large number of people, the advertisers will come to you because you have an audience. We would not need to put pressure on you because you are an independent model institution that reaches certain groups, but it is a process that I think it starts from creating the independent journalism to publish and give people what they need.
I think in that way you can increase your circulation. In that way advertising will come to you, unless there is pressure on advertisement from political authorities because you are powerful politically and have a powerfully political paper. If you have influenced the public opinion, then authority may ask the advertiser not to advertise. But I think that there is another sign, there is a change of the law. Once the empowerment is positive and permissive for this kind of work, the journalistic investigation becomes strong, and then you feel more protective. Any kind of this illegal influences the advertisements, and then you have possibilities in the law to change this, but I think in the Arab world money has corrupted a lot of people. For example, in the Gulf War, Gulf countries bought a lot of journalists and gave them money to support widely varying policies, from supporting to attacking Iraq. There were also a lot of lies published.
The press is still a very weak institution in our countries and it can only be changed if journalists are aware of their role in society. and want to contribute to the democratization of their countries to create a state of law and order.
If journalists are aware of that, surely their independence and their power will be more effective, and they will play major roles in the policies of the government, parliament and big companies and other institutions. Once you play that role of watchdog, everybody will be scared of you.
The press will publish it and then the public will complain about this. It has to inform the public of the wrong doings. We have to change everything in our democratic society. But in our society, again there is no free elections, then it is the whole journalism operating in an environment that is really under political development. Journalists play an important role in this process of change. It is really their job to bring the information to the public by being critical journalists, by revealing the wrong doings of those in power. Journalists should show the government what it needs to do.
Q: How can we establish a link between human rights issues and the media and what is the importance of this link?
A:The media has a huge human rights dimension. That is why human rights organizations are dealing with media issues. Freedom of expression, for example is for the freedom of life for every person. If there is no freedom of expression, there can be no freedom of opinion. If the oxygen of freedom does not exist, surely the media can not operate properly. Media has to fight for freedom of expression. I think that this is the right way for the media and people as a whole. There are also other rights, for example economic and social rights. The political rights of journalists must be organized in their own interests and ways. Freedom of human rights in media is the right of access to information. That is a fundamental right.
I am calling to the Yemeni people, especially the staff of Yemen Times, to help us to establish this press freedom bureau. I think that is the important thing that we have to do immediately. The memory of the late Dr. Abdulaziz Al-saqqaf is still alive between us. He was a model of independent journalist. I think that he created schools in Yemen and people have to know that Arab countries have produced many good journalists like Dr. Al- Saqqaf.