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Sun 17 Feb 2008 03:13 AM

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Rights group slams Arab media charter

Attempt to control broadcasts an unacceptable move to rob viewers of freedom, committee argues.

A new Arab "charter" to coordinate media control is an attempt by autocratic governments to squash already limited freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Saturday.

Arab governments, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, last week adopted a satellite broadcasting charter, which will entrench state control over broadcasts and curtail political expression on the airwaves across the region of some 300 million people.

The charter, signed by information ministers in Cairo, bans broadcasting material seen as undermining "social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety", criticising religions or defaming political, national and religious leaders.

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

There has been a proliferation of private satellite channels in recent years, with the total number of outlets estimated at around 300.

"This is an unacceptable move on the part of autocratic governments to rob viewers of the already small amount of broadcast freedom they have enjoyed on private television," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in a statement.

"Arab governments should immediately disavow this shameful document and hold their countries to international standards for freedom of expression,"the New-York based group said.

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.

Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, seen as the most popular network in the Arab world, also attacked the charter, saying it would hinder independent reporting.

"Al Jazeera considers the adoption of the charter ... a risk to freedom of expression in the Arab world," said a statement on Friday, noting what is said was vague language.

Al Jazeera is one of the few major broadcasters in the region considered by analysts to be outside the influence of Saudi Arabia, the leading Arab power, which, flush with oil money, oversees a media empire including networks and channels such as MBC, Al Arabiya, ART, Orbit, LBC and Rotana.

But analysts have even noted a shift in Al Jazeera's coverage over the past year as the channel avoids material which could upset the Saudi government.

State media in most Arab countries, including media-powerful Egypt, also avoid news that could offend Saudi rulers.

Arab governments regularly prosecute journalists via press laws opposed by rights groups.
An Al Jazeera producer in Egypt was sentenced to six months in prison last year for collecting material for a programme on police torture. A court overturned the verdict this month. (Reuters)

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