Freedom of speech in the Middle East

Arabs follow fake news, while the dream of progress dies

In the Arab world, freedom of opinion collides with a societal juggernaut that silences imagination with remarkable efficiency. Egyptian author and novelist Khaled al-Khamissi describes the mechanisms of repression in Arab society

Do Arab journalists have the freedom to write whatever comes into their heads, as long as what they write doesn't break the law?

Can Arab writers freely express the full range of ideas they consider to be conducive to progress?

Can they invoke Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? According to this article, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Press freedom an illusion

When reading these questions, some people's thoughts will undoubtedly turn directly to mechanisms of repression at political, criminal justice or constitutional level that are calculated to shackle any kind of free thought. The focus here, however, is instead on the repression prevalent in the Arab world at a societal level.

In this context, the above-listed questions can quite simply and decisively be answered with a "no": anyone in an Arab society who is serious about writing does not enjoy such freedom.

And while people in these societies generally like to act as if they are indefatigable defenders of freedom, it seems to me that the majority of Arabs defend tooth and nail the existence of political instruments designed to censor artistic and literary creativity.

 Egypt: protesting freedom of the press. The banner reads 'Journalism is not a crime' (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Sayed)
Freedom of speech in shackles: "while people in these societies generally like to act as if they are indefatigable defenders of freedom, it seems to me that the majority of Arabs defend tooth and nail the existence of political instruments designed to censor artistic and literary creativity," writes Khamissi

This raises the following questions: how can it be that people who do not hold political office have become tools of social repression? What weapons of oppression do they use? Who has trained them to repress others? And what ideas form the ideological framework for this repression?

The conservatism of Arab societies and the guardians-of-morality mentality

Generally speaking, about half of Arab societies are staunchly conservative. In other words, these are societies that are geared towards preserving traditional societal institutions: they seek stability, prefer pyramid-like hierarchies to equality, view any form of innovation with suspicion and attach supreme authority to the concept of the prevailing "order" (nizam). In this way, they help ensure that wealth and social status always remain in the same hands.

For example, one article in the Egyptian constitution says the following: "The family is the basis of the society founded on religion, morality and patriotism. The State strives to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family – with the values and traditions it embodies – while affirming and developing its character in relations within the Egyptian society." This article of the constitution sets out plainly in black and white the values of the conservative society, which is geared towards the preservation of traditional values.

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