Chaos on the satellite airwaves

A number of Egyptian and Arab satellite channels have been playing a destructive role in our society, threatening our national unity and stoking sectarian tensions in a manner that can ultimately jeopardize the values of coexistence. Such acts by the media should not be considered free speech for, as we know it, the freedom to express one’s views does not include encouraging sectarianism and promoting a culture of hatred. Satellite channels which commit such crimes deserve to be penalized. Therefore, the recent decision by Egyptian authorities to issue warnings to some of these media outlets and to shut down others should be well-received.

Although I agree with the government’s decision in principle, I still have some questions about these channels and reservations about the how media content will be regulated in the future.  

First, who gave these channels permission to air their programs on the Nilesat in the first place and why did those responsible remain silent while numerous violations were being committed in the name of freedom? Amid that state of chaos, several journalists and media professionals repeatedly warned of the dangerous repercussions of giving these channels a free hand.

Second, what exactly prompted the sudden decision on the part of those officials to block some channels without prior warning? And how effective will these closures be in an era where technology permits a rapid sharing of information in defiance of state restrictions?

Third, who has the authority to tell good and bad satellite channels apart, and what are the criteria used? How do we guarantee the state will not block channels in the future that present politically-sensitive content? Why can't the judiciary issue warnings and decide on closures as a guarantee for fairness and integrity? Or better yet, why don’t we have an independent body to lay down the rules and criteria for integrity and transparency?

In February 2008, Arab information ministers convened a meeting to address some of these questions. The result was the adoption of a document (despite some reservations by Qatar) titled "Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region” which laid down a set of regulations for satellite transmission. These included the following restrictions:

-Refraining from airing content that may undermine social peace, national unity, public order, and general ethics.

-Abiding by the rules stated in the Arab Media Code of Ethics.

-Refraining from incitement to hatred and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, color, gender, or creed.

-Refraining from broadcasting content that incites violence and terrorism.

-Refraining from broadcasting obscene material.

ٍSadly, however, this document has not been a reference for Arab media professionals, whose opinion was not even solicited when the document was prepared. Furthermore, the document contains stretchy rules which, interpreted in different ways, can be used to support an argument and its counter-argument at the same time. Worse still, the document can be misused to suppress freedom of expression.

Arab and Egyptian media need a reference that takes into consideration the fact that access to media information has been made much easier in the past decade. This task is becoming all the more urgent as satellite television renders the region, and the world at large, a much smaller place.  I cannot help but wonder why Egyptian authorities’ efforts to regulate TV content remain consigned within Egypt’s national boundaries, even though satellite media has undoubtedly developed a regional character as channel owners, TV personalities and audiences come from different countries in the Arab world.

The timing of the warnings and closures also carries political significance, having immediately followed the dismissal of opposition newspaper Al-Dostour’s chief editor Ibrahim Eissa last month, the suspension of the Saudi-owned Orbit TV station, the Supreme Judicial Council’s decision to ban the transmission of trials, and the National Telecom Regulatory Authority’s decision requiring media institutions to first gain the approval of the information minister and the Supreme Council of Journalism to send SMS text messages.

Whether these new restrictions are linked or not, together they constitute a crackdown on press freedom. I welcome the decision to shut down channels that serve as a mouthpiece for hate-mongers, however I believe such decisions should not be left to state bureaucrats alone.

It has become imperative to create some order from this chaos, but such a task is beyond the capacity of the information minister and his Arab counterparts in the region. Reorganizing Egyptian media is a societal and cultural priority that should involve broader segments of the population. Satellite airwaves are not under the exclusive ownership of the ruling National Democratic Party or any other group working to serve its own agenda.  

Translated from the Arabic edition.

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