Bat­tle over Arab pub­lic space and ideas

Pakistan Observer - - INTERNATIONAL -

IT is not a good sign when a gov­ern­ment says it pro­motes democ­racy yet sends its police to in tim­i­date and ar­rest jour­nal­ists and pre­vent peace­ful pub­lic demon­stra­tions. In this vein, the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment’s storm­ing of the Egyp­tian Press Syn­di­cate’s of­fices on Sun­day is only the lat­est and most dra­matic move by Arab gov­ern­ments to use a va­ri­ety of means at their dis­posal to con­trol what cit­i­zens have ac­cess to in their me­dia. This is not a new trend, as Arab gov­ern­ments have tried for 60 years — since the Egyp­tian in­ven­tion of the min­istry of in­for­ma­tion in the 1950s — to shape the minds and ac­tions of cit­i­zens, so that they con­form to what the gov­ern­ment be­lieves is ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour.

The dan­ger to­day is that many Arab gov­ern­ments, very much led by the Egyp­tian ex­am­ple, si­mul­ta­ne­ously seek to limit the con­tent of the tra­di­tional me­dia, while also clamp­ing down on free ex­pres­sion through free- wheel­ing so­cial me­dia or civil so­ci­ety ac­tivism.

The Euro­pean Union was cor­rect to warn Egypt on Mon­day over the storm­ing of the press syn­di­cate and the ar­rest of jour­nal­ists who had been hold­ing a sit- in as a show of sol­i­dar­ity with other de­tained jour­nal­ists.

It said that this “wor­ry­ing de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues a trend of re­strict­ing space for civil so­ci­ety and the free­dom of ex­pres­sion”, not­ing that “free­dom of as­sem­bly and press free­dom are es­sen­tial for democ­racy, to guar­an­tee that all peace­ful voices are heard and re- spected”. The im­por­tance of main­tain­ing rea­son­able de­grees of free­dom of ex­pres­sion and free­dom of as­sem­bly in Egypt and all Arab coun­tries re­flects the fact that par­lia­ments, the ju­di­ciary and other means of pro­mot­ing po­lit­i­cal plu­ral­ism and cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion, and hold­ing state and pri­vate sec­tor power acc o u n t a b l e , have largely lost their cred­i­bil­ity and im­pact.

Egypt last year banned any pub­lic protests that were not ap­proved by the state, and has sys­tem­at­i­cally im­pris­oned civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists or shut their of­fices.

The police said they en­tered the press s y n d i c a t e build­ing to ar­rest two jour­nal­ists who were ac­cused of or­gan­is­ing protests to “desta­bilise the coun­try”.

This fol­lowed sev­eral in­ci­dents last week when the gov­ern­ment pre­vented labour move­ments from hold­ing pub­lic demon­stra­tions on May Day, which prompted state­ments by in­de­pen­dent trade union lead­ers urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to al­low greater free­dom of as­sem­bly.

The press syn­di­cate head­quar­ters, like the lawyers’ syn­di­cate, has of­ten acted as a fo­cal point for in­de­pen­dent protests against gov­ern­ment con­trols that re­strict free­dom of ex­pres­sion or as­sem­bly.

Sev­eral thou­sand demon­stra­tors at the press syn­di­cate last month pub­licly protested the Egyp­tian pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to hand over two Red Sea is­lands to Saudi Ara­bia, which drew many protests from Egyp­tians.

Main­tain­ing rea­son­able de­grees of free­dom of ex­pres­sion and as­sem­bly in Arab so­ci­eties is crit­i­cal be­cause these are the last lines of de­fence against to­tal state con­trol of peo­ple’s minds, ac­tions and lives.

The Arab world has ex­pe­ri­enced the de­struc­tive dan­gers of to­tal state con­trol of power and ideas, as wit­nessed in the mod­ern history of states like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Su­dan and oth­ers, where au­thor­i­tar­ian rule sapped so­ci­ety of its dy­namism and plu­ral­ism and even­tu­ally hol­lowed out both state and so­ci­ety.

Arab gov­ern­ments since the 1950s have used their law- mak­ing mo­nop­o­lies to re­strict press free­doms and other ex­pres­sions of po­lit­i­cal, so­cial or cul­tural views that do not ad­here to state guide­lines. The counter- rev­o­lu­tion­ary moves by many Arab gov­ern­ments to beat back the wave of pop­u­lar protests that erupted in our re­gion in 2011 usu­ally in­clude at­tempts to re­strict me­dia free­doms, such as in­creased li­cens­ing re­quire­ments that al­low the state to con­trol what is avail­able for cit­i­zens to hear, see or read.

One on­go­ing con­tro­ver­sial move now sees hu­man rights and press free­dom or­gan­i­sa­tions chal­leng­ing an ini­tia­tive by the International Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Fed­er­a­tion of Arab Jour­nal­ists and the Arab League, to form a spe­cial mech­a­nism to sup­port me­dia free­dom in the Arab re­gion.

Ac­tivists op­posed to the move fear that em­bed­ding any such mech­a­nism within the Arab League would see it con­trolled by Arab gov­ern­ments to serve their poli­cies.

The civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists is­sued a state­ment last week not­ing that “in spite of all se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions that hap­pen ev­ery day in the Arab re­gion, the Arab League, the Arab Com­mis­sion for Hu­man Rights, the Arab Net­work of Na­tional In­sti­tu­tions for Hu­man Rights and the Arab Par­lia­men­tary Union have all failed mis­er­ably and have not been able to is­sue a state­ment con­demn­ing even one in­ci­dent of those vi­o­la­tions”.

In­stead, they have called for the in­volve­ment of the United Na­tions and the Euro­pean Union in agree­ing on a pre­cise def­i­ni­tion and clear man­date for the en­vi­sioned me­dia free­doms- pro­mo­tion mech­a­nism, in­clud­ing how to en­sure its in­de­pen­dence and ef­fi­cacy in the Arab re­gion.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant bat­tles tak­ing place these days in the Arab re­gion is about how wide or nar­row is the pub­lic space avail­able for cit­i­zens to ex­press them­selves and of­fer views that dif­fer from or chal­lenge the state. — Courtesy: TJT

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