Yemen pioneers Arabs in shackling freedom of expression [Archives:2008/1132/Opinion]

February 25 2008

Dr. Mohammed Al-Qadhi
Last week, the Yemeni information minister Hassan Allawzi was shrugging his shoulders in pride of proposing to the Arab information ministers a code to govern satellite broadcasting. Well done Mr. Minister! This could be considered an outstanding addition to the great bounds Yemen's regime is making to boost democracy and freedom.

Since his appointment as information minister, he has been inventing tricks to further restrict and shackle press freedom. During his tenure in office, the number of press freedom abuses has increased tremendously. I believe he has thought he should export his genius to Arab states. The outcome has been this shocking charter the Arab information ministers, except Qatari and Lebanese, endorsed last week at the premises of the Arab League. The code allows host countries to annul or suspend the license of any broadcaster found in violation of the rules it sets.

It also stipulates that satellite channels “should not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values”. The document, which heralds a tendency to further more restrictions on broadcasters, says that programming should also “conform with the religious and ethical values of Arab society and take account of its family structure”.

These guidelines are so ambiguous and could be interpreted to hamper independent reporting from the region; they impose censorship over access to information. The experience of al-Jazeera, which has created ripples in the mindset of the Arab people and rulers by opening a free room for expression and debate, is a fundamental reason behind such kind of guidelines the Arab regimes tend to force. Such regimes do not care about what the charter claims to “protect Arab identity from the harmful effects of globalization”. It is exactly what Anas al-Fiqi, the Egyptian information minister, said: “some satellite channels have strayed from the correct path.” I do not know what “path” the man is talking about. Is it the “path” of the state-owned satellite TVs which the public have abandoned as they have nothing to report except the rulers activities and never voice the concerns of the people? Yes, the code has been clear in tabooing the criticism of the rulers.

The irony is that the Arab officials have found something to agree on. They never agree on issues that concern their peoples and their meetings at the Arab League and elsewhere always end up with disagreements. They have done it this time. This is a great achievement for the Arab people.

It might be justified for some Arab states which never pride in pioneering the region's states in democratization to adopt such a code. But, it is truly paradoxical that Yemen which has always claimed of being the bacon of democracy in the region feels proud the Arab states have endorsed such a document which means nothing but launching the next stage of censorship which is to try to prevent millions of people in the region to access information. In fact, these restrictions fall into conflict with some legislations concerning freedom of expression and these countries commitments to respect of human rights, including the right to know.

I understand the international community should not keep silent and accept such totalitarian and repressive documents that violate human rights principles and encourage the Arab regimes to pose further restrictions on broadcast media.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Qadhi ([email protected]) is a Yemeni journalist and columnist.