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Disturbing moves to create super-police for Arab satellite TV stations, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Arab information ministers met in Cairo on 24 January 2010 to discuss a joint proposal by the Egyptian and Saudi governments for the creation of a regional office to supervise Arab satellite TV stations.

The proposal is partly a response to a bill adopted last month by the US House of Representatives that could result in satellite operators themselves being branded as "terrorist entities" if they contract their services to TV stations classified as "terrorist" by the US Congress. It is also an outcome of discussions begun by the Arab League in 2008.

"This proposal is disturbing, to say the least," Reporters Without Borders said. "The danger is that this super-police could be used to censor all TV stations that criticise the region's governments. It could eventually be turned into a formidable weapon against freedom of information."

This "Office for Arab Satellite Television" would be in charge of enforcing guidelines aimed at ensuring that Arab TV stations respect the ethical standards and moral values of Arab society as well as ensuring that they no longer serve as fronts or outlets for "terrorist" organisations.

The original proposal for such an office was made in February 2008 by Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa. It was recently revived by the Saudi government, which controls Arabsat, and the Egyptian government, which controls Nilesat.

It seems that Riyadh and Cairo hope to ride a current that supports the reaffirmation of traditional values. The main TV stations targeted by the proposal are Al Jazeera, the Hamas station Al-Aqsa TV and the Hezbollah station Al-Manar.

The Arab League's 22 member countries are nonetheless far from being unanimous about the proposal. In fact, the battle lines have been drawn between those in favour and those against. The pro camp centres on Saudi Arabia and Cairo. Those already clearly defined as members of the contra camp include Lebanon and Qatar.

There are many stumbling blocks on the road to agreement. Some fear this office would end up controlling content on privately-owned TV stations. Others have voiced concern about loss of sovereignty. Technical questions have been raised. Who will be members of this office? How will they be appointed? What will their exact powers be? And what punishments will they be able to impose?

The issue of funding has also been raised as well as the more symbolic question of where the office will be located. Will it be attached to the Arab League's secretariat or to the Standing Committee of Arab Media?

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