By Dylan Bowman
Charter will seriously impede right of people in Arab world, US-based group says.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on governments in the region to publicly reject a satellite broadcast charter passed by the Arab League that looks to clamp down on political and religious expression.
The charter, adopted on February 12 at a meeting of information ministers in Cairo, is seen as a response to the freedom enjoyed by Arab satellite broadcasters, many of which are privately financed and encourage open political discussion of sensitive matters.
Introduced by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the charter bans the broadcast of material seen as undermining "social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety" - accusations governments often throw at political opponents.
Broadcasters cannot criticise religions or defame political, national and religious leaders, it says.
If a broadcaster violates the charter, the host government could suspend or revoke its broadcasting licence, it says.
Human Rights Watch accused governments of trying to stifle freedom of speech and said the "vaguely worded" restrictions would "seriously impede the right of people in the region to express views critical of the governments and to receive news and commentary reflecting critical opinions".
"Arab League governments are trying to stifle one of the few relatively uncensored forms of mass communication in the region,” said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“Many Arab states routinely use this language of ‘state interests’ and ‘national sovereignty’ as an excuse to imprison journalists and intimidate critics.
“These so-called principles are nothing but a crude assault on free speech.”
Lebanon and Qatar, where the outspoken Al Jazeera channel is based, have both expressed reservations over the charter, and Human Rights Watch urged other Arab states to follow their example.
“Qatar and Lebanon have shown that Arab support for tight restrictions on satellite broadcasting is not unanimous,” Stork said.
The US-based organisation hit out at the charter's sponsors, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, claiming both countries routinely imprisoned critics and political opponents.
Saudi Arabia detained popular blogger Fouad Al Farhan in December for violating “non-security regulations”, while Egypt has jailed several newspaper editors for publishing "false news" over the last few months.
“Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be ashamed for sponsoring a proposal that would extend repression of free speech to airwaves across the region," Stork said.
Al-Jazeera has also lashed out at the charter, labelling it "a risk to the freedom of expression in the Arab world".