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Tue 12 Feb 2008 04:36 PM

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Broadcaster freedom under threat

Ministers adopt satellite broadcasting charter entrenching state control over media in Arab world.

Arab governments adopted on Tuesday a satellite broadcasting charter which will entrench state control over broadcasts and curtail political expression.

The document, which echoes the language found in press laws used by some Arab countries to prosecute journalists critical of their governments, was endorsed at a meeting of Arab information ministers in Cairo.

Analysts say the charter is the Arab governments' response to the relative freedom enjoyed by Arab satellite broadcasters, many of which are privately financed and which encourage open political discussion of sensitive matters.

"This is clearly an effort to try to stem [the] influence from satellite television on a political level," said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo.

"But while it may produce a lot more court cases, it's ultimately going to be doomed to failure," he told Reuters. "It shows the sheer gap between how governments see media and how media actually plays out on the ground," he added.

Egyptian Minister of Information Anas El-Feki said the charter was binding despite reservations by Qatar, where the outspoken Al Jazeera satellite channel is based.

"[Qatar] decided to enter a reservation, out of fear that the charter could contain any provisions that contradict Qatari law... We shouldn't politicise it," El-Feki told a news conference.

Cairo-based analyst Issandr El-Amrani said the charter idea came after the proliferation of political talk shows in recent years, which gave "a much stronger voice to opposition politicians and movements like the Muslim Brotherhood".

He noted that Saudi Arabia, one of the sponsors of the charter, had banned live talk shows after someone mocked the size of a civil servant salary increase - a position seen as a criticism of the royal family.

A Saudi government source confirmed on Tuesday that the Ministry of Information and Culture had issued an indefinite ban on all live phone-ins after the incident.

The charter bans broadcasting material seen as undermining "social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety" - accusations which Arab governments often throw at their opponents.

Broadcasters can not criticise religions or defame political, national and religious leaders, it says.

"Freedom [of expression] is to be exercised with awareness and responsibility to protect the supreme interests of the Arab states and the Arab nation," one clause says.

If a broadcaster violates the charter, the host government could suspend or revoke its broadcasting licence, it said.

But the charter does make one gesture toward public opinion, saying that Arabs have a right to watch international sporting events in which their national teams are competing, regardless of who owns the broadcast rights.

In 2006 Saudi-owned Arab Radio and Television (ART) upset millions in several North African countries by enforcing its exclusive right to broadcast World Cup matches, which went out on encrypted satellite channels.

Egyptian officials later criticised what they described as ART's monopoly. (Reuters)

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