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CIHRS condemns satellite broadcast regulatory principles adopted by Arab League

(CIHRS/IFEX) - The following is an 18 February 2008 CIHRS press release:

Ailing Arab League Undermines Freedom of Expression

CIHRS strongly condemns the document entitled "Principles regulating Radio and Satellite TV Transmission and Receiving in the Arab Region", adopted by the Council of Arab Information Ministers. CIHRS confirms that the document, disguised by media professional ethics rhetoric, is primarily aimed at providing a fake national and ethical cover to limit the freedom margin exercised by the media outlets in some of the Arab countries. This margin of freedom existed either because of the influence of the global communications and information revolution or internal and external pressures for democracy.

Ironically, it is the same Arab League that failed to realize one achievement for the major Arab issues in Palestine, Iraq, Maghreb Sahara, the occupied Emirates Islands, Lebanon, Southern Sudan and Darfur, that is being used as a platform for this "unified Arab" attack on freedom of expression.

It is indicative that the said document was developed following an initiative by the Egyptian government as media freedom in Egypt is seriously deteriorating. This is best manifested by the jail sentences awaiting five editors-in-chief of partisan and independent newspapers all at once. In addition, there are hundreds of cases pending at the courts against journalists as well as defamation campaigns against the press and satellite channels where government media professionals participate, claiming that the media is committing violations of code of ethics and jeopardizes Egypt's reputation. This is meant to refer to the exposure of police violations of citizens' rights and torture incidents. It is similarly indicative that Saudi Arabia joins such an initiative with its hegemony over media outlets, not only within the Kingdom, but also throughout the Arab region.

In this connection, CIHRS underlines that any rules related to the ethics of press and media professions should be derived from the media professionals and the relevant syndicates. The task of evaluating the performance of the media and its adherence to the professional codes of ethics should be assigned to independent and integral agencies that are not led by the governments.
CIHRS notes that the document grants governments a free hand in passing whatever legislations appeal to them to enforce the rules and principles included in the document and to adopt whatever measures deemed relevant against the media outlets breaking such rules, including confiscation of transmission equipment and withdrawing, blocking or abolishing transmission licenses.

While the authors of the said initiative claim that it aims at promoting the level of media performance, protecting ethical values and combating ignorance and the spread of misleading folk information, its major goal is to immunize the Arab regimes, policies, practices and figures against criticism and to hinder the discussion of the major problems facing the Arab societies - rendering them the most backward of the world regions.

Therefore, it is not astonishing that the document, though claiming abidance by respect for freedom of expression as a pillar of Arab media performance, revokes such a commitment by highlighting that "such freedom is exercised responsibly in a manner promoting the higher interests of the Arab states". Thus, the document employed all sorts of ambiguous rhetoric characterizing most of the Arab legislations. The governments are used to employing such provisions to undermine media freedom and freedom of expression, e.g. "abstaining from transmitting any material conflicting with the Arab solidarity trends, respect for state dignity and sovereignty and depiction of national or religious leaders in an inappropriate manner", in addition to other similar vague provisions.

CIHRS previously confirmed in a recent published study, entitled: "The Arab Media: Liberation and Re-defining Hegemony", that there is still a long way ahead for the audio-visual media sector to manifest the recognized standards in democratic societies to ensure the freedom and plurality of media transmission.

If the Arab Information Ministers genuinely wanted to restructure and regulate the media outlets within a framework promoting freedom of expression and media freedom, we encourage them to convince their governments to adopt some of the recommendations concluded by the study - forming a common basis for enhancing media freedom, the priorities of which are the following:

1. Review all ambiguous legislation allowing for opportunities to criminalize opinion, publication and circulation of information through publication or transmission.

2. Revisit the various legislative restrictions hindering freedom of circulation and access to information, thus undermining citizens' right to knowledge.

3. Promote the right of media professionals to syndicate protection and enable them to play a key role in developing and monitoring abidance by codes of ethics.

4. End government hegemony and control over public transmission to transform this sector into a public service facility, maintaining independent management, finance and operations. This should be in a manner ensuring that the sector is managed according to social public interests and in order to meet the needs of a diversified public.

5. Make the management and organization of the audio-visual transmission sector subject to financially and administratively independent regulatory bodies. The selection of their members should be based on democracy, transparency and exposure, provided that these organizations are monitored by the people as well as the judiciary.

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