Arab States Crack Down on Sat TV

Over the opposition solely of Qatar — which, not incidentally, is the home of Al-Jazeera—  information ministers of the 22-member Arab League voted Tuesday to adopt a document that would impose regulations on Arab satellite television.

AFP reports:

The meeting was called at the request of Egypt, which hosts the Arab League and serves as base for several Arab satellite channels.

It calls for the stations "not to offend the leaders or national and religious symbols" of Arab countries.

Cairo and Riyadh frequently complain of criticism of their regimes in talk shows aired by Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels.

The Cairo document authorises signatory countries to "withdraw, freeze or not renew the work permits of media which break the regulations".

It stipulates that satellite channels "should not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values."

The Financial Times provides more detailed background on what has motivated members of the Arab League to crack down on private satellite channels: 

In recent years the explosion in satellite channels – there are now about 500 – has meant that states have lost control over what their populations could see on television.

Channels like al-Jazeera, which at times has upset most Arab governments, have provided platforms for opposition groups and have breached taboos by broadcasting stories about human rights violations and election fraud.

An Egyptian court last week fined an al-Jazeera journalist for damaging the image of the country by filming a documentary containing reconstructions of torture in a police station. Saudi Arabia has also long had problems with al-Jazeera, though gulf watchers say the channel appears to have toned down its coverage of the kingdom after a recent rapprochement between Doha and Riyadh.

Abd-al-Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, comments that "The Arab ministers have started to coordinate in an admirable way in order to take the Arab media back to the dark ages," or to "a media of praise":

 [U]nder the new rules, the government of Nuri al-Maliki in the new Iraq can demand the closure of any Arab satellite channel if the channel refuses to call the Iraqi resistance of the U.S. occupation terrorism, and continues to host its leaders or those sympathetic to it on its satellite channels….

The Arab governments, and in particular the Saudi and Egyptian ones, want to take Arab public opinion to the previous lifeless era which prevailed before the satellite channels boom and in which the official media played the heroic role, that is, political programmes that had nothing to do with reality and reflected the views of the intelligence services and their rulers [rather than those of the public.]

More seriously, these two countries are also the ones who are investing the most, through some of their followers, in the entertainment and amusement channels which are multiplying at a frightening rate. Many believe that they aim to corrupt the young generations and steer them away from the fundamental and essential issues which affect their future, such as unemployment, corruption, human rights violations, and all kinds of freedoms.

Noting that "the time when the Arab citizen tunes in to the BBC to learn about his country’s news [was] supposed to have gone forever" with the advent of satellite TV and the internet, Atwan wonders if the new document adopted by the Arab League will spell the end of an independent Arab media.

Time will tell.

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