Chris Zambelis is a Senior Analyst specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C., area. His primary research interests include geopolitics, domestic politics, security, economics and energy issues relevant to the broader Middle East, including Middle East-Asia relations. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.
– Mr. Zambelis, I in some times was in edition of the main Egyptian newspaper of Al-Ahram. Then (before the Arabian revolutions) it seemed they is very close to that to accept the western information standards. Whether it is possible to say that Egyptian media today complies with democratic standards?
– Al-Ahram is largely owned and operated by the Egyptian state apparatus and business figures tied closely to the government. While it may portray an image of independence and freedom in some capacity – especially, its English-language component – the reality is that it has always largely operated within the informational parameters dictated by Egypt’s deeply ingrained authoritarian structures. This translates into varying degrees of censorship as reflected by the topics of coverage, and self-censorship practiced by editors and journalists. It is worth noting that the editorial staff is essentially appointed by the state. As a result, they are entrusted to operate within certain understood parameters when it comes to how they interpret and cover news. This has been the case long before the uprisings that led to fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the election and elevation of now deposed Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammed Morsi, and the subsequent post-coup Abdel Fattah al-Sisi leadership. Given Al-Ahram’s ties to the state, it is hard to accept it as a credible example of free and liberal media.
– But how much real can be freedom of speech in the media, television and radio Arab countries?
– The prevalence of authoritarianism throughout the Arab world has impeded the development of a truly free media in most of the region. Of course, there are different degrees of authoritarianism, and this impacts the extent of freedom enjoyed by regional media. Official, state-owned media bodies continue to operate as what are essentially propaganda arms for the incumbent states in which they service alongside what are presented as privately-owned (i.e. independent) media outlets that operate under restrictions when it comes to how they cover certain issues. There is a also a great deal of overlap between so-called private media outlets and the state as many of the proprietors of these entities are often closely tied to political parties or the state in some capacity. In this climate, journalists are often targeted for exposing government corruption or for challenging (or otherwise criticizing) incumbent governments. Even the numerous regional-based media outlets that cater to the wider Arab audience and operate as privately owned independent outlets, especially those based in the Gulf States, reflect these tendencies to different extents.
The advent of new and social media and the ubiquity of the Internet, however, has opened up the playing field when it comes to freedom of expression and the availability of different sources of information. Despite attempts to censor the Internet by the region’s most authoritarian regimes, to a large extent Arabs who can access the Internet at home, work, cyber cafes, or by phone have unprecedented access different and credible sources of information.
– To what extent today the press and TV of Lebanon and Kuwait differs from media in Iraq, Syria and Libya?
– Lebanon’s media climate is among the most free, liberal, and diverse in the Arab world. At the same time, a number of key media outlets, including newspapers and television stations, are often associated with (or owned outright) by major political parties. Lebanon’s Future Movement, for example, operates a network of media outlets, including Future Television. Hizballah operates Al-Manar. Self-censorship is also prevalent on controversial political issues. Media freedom in Kuwait tends to be more free and open in relation to its fellow Gulf States, but the typical red lines when it comes to criticizing the royal family, among others, exist. Media in Syria is heavily suppressed and controlled, with state-run bodies dominant and severe restrictions present on the exchange of information. Libya under Muammar al-Qaddafi boasted one of the most closed and restrictive media climates in the region but has since enjoyed a gradual opening since his ouster from power. Regardless, what all of these countries have in common is their inability to sufficiently manage and control the flow of information that is occurring via the Internet, social media, etc., even though some may try.
– The caesura and self-censorship in mass-media in the Arabian countries is a tradition or result of not democratic forms of government?
– Absolutely. Journalists operating in the authoritarian climates tend to practice different forms of self-censorship depending on the threats they face. Many journalists in the region that work for independent media outlets or even independent reporters that rely on blogs and other social media platforms to convey their stories face the danger of being subject to heavy fines, or in the worst case scenario, arrest or even death.
– 71% of Saudis believe that the government does not intervene in the work of the media. But in Qatar and Bahrain, the figure is less and is 51% and 38% respectively. These are poll data in eight Arabian countries. Is it possible to talk that freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia two times more than in Bahrain ?
– There is no logical correlation here between these figures and reality. Saudi Arabia’s media climate happens to be one of the world’s most restrictive. This is illustrative of its deeply autocratic system. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by one of the world’s most autocratic regimes. In general, polling data in authoritarian societies tends be highly suspect. When it comes to the state of freedom of media in Saudi Arabia, we can refer to the tragic plight of Raif Badawi, a liberal Saudi writer and blogger who is facing a number of charges, a punishment of lashing, and prison time over his work. While Badawi’s case has received widespread attention in international activist circles, there are countless other examples of the kind of pressures and dangers journalists face in Saudi Arabia. For its part, Bahrain just recently shut down the pan-Arab Al-Arab News, a new channel owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, for airing an interview with a member of the Bahraini political opposition. But, again, the media climate, even in the region’s most repressive societies, is changing due to the availability of different sources of information.
– In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a decree giving the prime minister authority to ban any foreign publications «offensive to religion». Whether or not it is by a caricature on freedom of speech?
– This is another example of how authoritarian regimes in the Arab world leverage their power to manage and control the flow of information. In many respects, autocratic regimes will apply broad concepts of “public decency,” “national security,” or “respect for religion” as a justification for limiting if not outright banning the flow of certain information. This is just another instrument of control that is designed to sow fear in people.
– In countries where freedom of expression is limited or nonexistent, blogging play a huge role. What is the role of bloggers in the Arab world?
– Blogging and other social media play huge roles in regional media. The monopoly of state-controlled or otherwise state-influenced media is long over. Even in the region’s most closed societies, independent bloggers and other journalists and activists have a wealth of resources available to encourage the flow of information. This is the case even in countries where social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter face severe restrictions. A number of dissident bloggers who write on politics and social issues from a critical standpoint are frequently targeted by incumbent regimes. For example, an Egyptian court only recently sentenced prominent Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah to five years in prison for violating so-called protest laws in his coverage of a range of issues, including the status of jailed dissidents and protesters, dealing with the uprising again Mubarak. This is the state of media freedom in Egypt.
– Press freedom for most Arab countries is it an unattainable ideal or simply fiction?
– The expansion of an increasingly free, liberal, and diverse press is certainly an attainable goal. But this will only occur as part of a broader process that includes a genuine turn to freer and more liberal societies governed by rule of law, accountable leaders, and legitimate institutions that operate in a democratic framework. There can be no genuine hope for freedom of press in heavily authoritarian societies.
– Any nation that is afraid freedom of expression is not a free nation. Arab nations are not ready for free speech?
– The incumbent dictatorships (and entrenched authoritarian structures that transcend personalities) that dominate the Arab world are certainly resistant to anything that would further empower their societies. This leaves them vulnerable to popular opinion and will, which is generally highly critical of their performance. A free media, after all, serves as a check against tyranny, corruption, and government’s other maladies. A free press emboldens citizens to hold their leaders accountable. When it comes to freedom of expression, Arabs are no different than others in that they yearn (and deserve) to live in societies where they are able to freely express themselves without fear.
– Whether exists key to introducing democratization and freedom of speech in the Arab countries?
– The right to express oneself without fear of repercussion – political, legal, and moral – represents a critical pillar to any functioning democracy. The notable examples of political liberalization around the Arab world over the years certainly, to different degrees, also helped to encourage the development of an increasingly independent media despite the prevailing authoritarianism. In general, the myriad problems afflicting the Arab world stem largely from entrenched authoritarianism. Without the adoption of genuine political reforms, including in the area of media and freedom of speech, the region will continue to languish.