The Arab ruling elites like to talk a good democracy – but talk is about as far as they get. Rather than advancing the cause of democracy their actions have been directed towards curtailing the newly won freedoms of the media. Amr Hamzawy reports on the Arab regimes' attempts to gag the media nuisance
The critical journalist is an unwelcome sight in the Arab world. At the beginning of April the Egyptian government withdrew the broadcasting licence from the London-based Dialog satellite channel.
Though this was done ostensibly to avert a perceived threat to social stability, the real reason was to prevent the broadcasting of a talk show where the Egyptian government came in for some heavy criticism.
In February, the Information Minister of the member states of the Arab League signed an agreement on the "organization of satellite transmission in the Arab region." The Egyptian-Saudi resolution effectively gives a green light to the governments to come down hard on any satellite channels that incur their disapproval.
It's a move that is very revealing of the current state of democracy in the Arab world. It also shows just how efficient the majority of Arab regimes have been when it comes to the successful renewal and modernisation of their machinery of authoritarian repression.
The lack of progress on democracy in recent years in the lands between Cairo and Muscat has become all too obvious. There are various reasons for this. Unemployment and poverty play their parts, as does the weakness of those whose job it is to push on the process of democratisation.
But one thing is sure. Those in charge of the undemocratic regimes are not going to change things voluntarily. They are going to have to be forced to do so. This will require either a middle class that is prepared to fight for its civil liberties and political rights, or an effort to be made by democratic movements with a broad base of popular support.
However, in many Arab countries, opposition parties and movements are not permitted to demonstrate, their supporters not allowed to vote for them.
And where, against all odds, they do manage to have success at the polls, the true results will then be subjected to "modification". The power of the ruling classes is shored up by repressive secret services whose activities engender a climate of fear and political apathy.
Arab satellite channels targeted
Since the 1990s, the popular Arab satellite channels have nevertheless managed to overcome these difficulties. They have challenged the information monopoly of the Arab regimes and given large parts of the population the chance to speak their own minds as well as enabling them to hear other independent opinions.
Even in the few countries where some freedom of speech and information did exist in the past, such as in pre-civil war Lebanon (1975 to 1990), for example, or in the Kuwait of the liberal 1980s, it was something that at that time didn't really make a difference to the lot of the ordinary Arab.
The pluralistic media coverage now on offer via the daily and weekly Arab region newspapers likewise only caters for an educated, well-read minority when it comes to indulging in freedom of opinion.
Al-Jazeera: pioneer of the media revolution
It was the founding of al-Jazeera in 1996, followed by another 400 Arab satellite channels, that saw the first seeds sown in the desert of Arab despotism, the first oases of information freedom beginning to bloom.
The new channels were able to bypass the official censors and to bring the Arab public face to face with a hitherto unknown variety of sources of information, opinion and ideological interpretation. With the satellite channels thus able to elude the machinery of traditional state censorship, the Arab regimes reacted in very different ways.
In Egypt and Jordan broadcasting rights were conceded by the respective governments, with both, however, taking steps to set the wheels of repression in motion: police surveillance, restrictions on the movement of journalists, arrests.
In Syria and Tunisia the tactic was to make life difficult for the satellite operators on the ground by not allowing office space for correspondents and responding to every critical report with a state-run media campaign.
For the ruling dynasties of the Arabian Peninsula it was a matter of letting their oil money do the talking. As financial backers of the main channels they were in a position to dictate their own immunity to negative reporting.
Though the reactions of the regimes differed their ultimate aim was the same: to curb the newly won freedom of the media. Whatever their actions at national level, they were unable to exert complete control over the media. The regimes needed a cooperative action strategy.
The recent agreement on satellite transmission signed by the member countries of the Arab League leaves no room for any doubt about its intentions. It forbids the satellite channels from "injuring the national dignity of Arab states and their peoples and from insulting leaders and national symbols."
The channels have also been constrained by the agreement to "respect the sovereignty of the Arab states, not to negatively affect social peace and to protect Arab identity."
Although the signatories commit themselves to protecting freedom of information, the last article of the charter also expressly confers them with a right to withdraw the licences from those channels which fail to comply with the terms of the agreement, as well as the right to prosecute staff in the employment of the channel.
The draconian measures testify to a rare unanimity on the part of the notoriously divided Arab League. Only Lebanon and Qatar of the 22 member countries expressed reservations. It's an unusual display of solidarity.
Apart from in their disagreeable dealings with the nuisance media, the member countries have previously only managed to demonstrate this kind of unity in their efforts to coordinate security in the struggle against terrorists and criminals.
So while the Arab ruling elites do like to talk a good democracy their actions speak louder than their words and the only visible signs of progress are those dedicated to efforts towards the modernisation of their vast administrative machinery and the instruments of authoritarian rule.
© Qantara.de 2008
Amr Hamzawy is Senior Associate for Middle East Politics at the "Carnegie Endowment for International Peace" in Washington.
Translated from the German by Ron Walker