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Thu 2 Jul 2009 12:48 PM

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Mideast still lacks media freedom - Al Jazeera chief

EXCLUSIVE: Press freedom in Arab World outdated, says Wadah Khanfar.

Media freedom in the Arab world has not improved since Al Jazeera launched 13 years ago and some governments are even taking a more hardline stance against critical reporting than they used to, the Qatar-based network’s director general has said.

Despite a flurry of new satellite channels hitting the airwaves since Al Jazeera launched in 1996, there has been little progress made in terms of legislation governing freedom of speech and local governments’ tolerance of criticism, Wadah Khanfar told Arabian Business in an interview.

“I do feel that there is no dramatic change taking place, either forwards or backwards,” he said.

“Legal implications are very difficult now, actually, in many countries where people can be sued by governments, or they could be put in jail for certain reasons that are related to freedom of expression.”

Al Jazeera broke a lot of taboos in the years following its launch by reporting more critically on Arab governments and addressing issues that had previously been off limits, such as women’s rights.

As a result many Arab journalists have become more outspoken in their reporting, but they are still vulnerable to draconian media laws and hostile governments.

“I must say that this new attitude, which is in my opinion very positive and people are used to it now, is not at all convincing governments to open up,” Khanfar said of the growing amount of critical content in Arab news outlets.

“It is actually putting governments in a position where they are trying more and more to silence voices and they are sometimes inventing new laws and regulations to work against the freedom of journalists.”

The top staff at the Doha Centre for Media Freedom resigned last week citing clashes with Qatari officials over press laws in the country and the government’s refusal to grant visas to persecuted journalists from countries including Iran.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the UAE to clarify and amend parts of its pending media law, which the government is hoping will help develop a free press in the country.

The New York based group said that although the pending law is a significant improvement over the existing one, steep fines for journalists who breach it means it will fall short of the government’s stated goal to rid the press of self censorship.

For the full interview see this Sunday's Arabian Business magazine.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

paul 11 years ago

The concept of freedom of speech cannot work in most of the middle east due to the cultural/political differences. Freedom of speech in the west is an inherent requirement for any society with free and fair elections; you must allow differing viewpoints, allow public discussion and criticism so that the public can know what each stands for and decide which candidate they prefer. Elections simply don't work if you cannot criticise the government, because how would an opposition be able to challenge them? If you don't have elections then you cannot have freedom of speech and allow criticism because it would highlight the fact that there is opposition and make it hard to justify not having elections. So it is necessary to outlaw all criticism in order to be able to plausibly say that there is no significant dissent that would justify the need for elections. This is basic political theory, it seems curious that anyone senior at Al Jazeera would expect that one can come without the other.

Omar 11 years ago

Freedom of speech in the Arab world? Are you kidding me?? It's very sad to state the fact that freedom is non-existent in the Arab world. The situation in this regard is very grim more than you can imagine!!

Pierre Chamas 11 years ago

Al Jazeera has managed in 13 years of existence to be the best know Arabic brand. It has broken all the taboos. Most Arabic and Israeli governments hate it, close its offices and jailed its correspondents. One of the foundations of the West development after long years of dark ages was based on the freedom of expression such as Descartes’ saying:” I doubt I exist" On the other hand, the Arab and the Muslim world civilization were shinning during the European dark ages. Ibn Sina(Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and many other Arabic speakers thinkers inspired the European renaissance with free thinking and expression. This was forbidden by the church at that time. The models were reversed around the 13th century. Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, Ishbillia (Seville) were the capitals of free thinking a thousand year ago. 13 years of Al Jazeera has changed a lot in the ME in my opinion, every taboo was broken. Al Jazeera with its controversial programs has shaken the Arab mind from it's cave sleep of many hundred years. It's funny the fact the West who preaches "Freedom of Expression", "Democracy" etc. is very annoyed by the loud voice of Al Jazeera. On the other hand "Al Hura" who is supported by the US government has much fewer fans in the ME. I’m neither a supporter nor opponent to Al Jazeera opinions on different matters as they're very varied and represent very oposite opinions, but the Arab media is very different now when compared it’s compared to 13 years ago.