Perils of crossing the red line

Barely two weeks had passed since the release f the UNDP’s third Arab Human Development report, entitled Towards Freedom in the Arab world, before three Egyptian journalists were each sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay hefty fines because of a libel suit brought against them by a government minister.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  April 24, 2005

|~||~||~|Barely two weeks had passed since the release f the UNDP’s third Arab Human Development report, entitled Towards Freedom in the Arab world, before three Egyptian journalists were each sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay hefty fines because of a libel suit brought against them by a government minister. According to various reports, including those of Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), an organisation devoted to freedom of the press, an Egyptian minister complained to the state prosecutor about a report on 18 August 2004 by the three journalists, which says his office was searched amid a corruption investigation concerning his brother-in-law. The article said police searched the minister’s office and that he was forbidden to enter it. Though it stood by its story, the newspaper ran a denial issued by the minister’s aides the next day. Nevertheless, a court sentenced the three journalists to a year in prison and fines of US$1700. And this all happened despite Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s pledge in February 2004 to abolish imprisonment as a punishment for what are termed as ‘publication-related offences’. This incident personifies not just another example of freedoms being blatantly assailed in the Arab world, but it also illustrates an unbending and reprehensible lack of respect on the part of Arab governments for the basic human right of their citizens to speak, think and write freely. The lack of these fundamental rights or the continued infringement of them is precisely what has held back, and continues to hold back, this region. The gross and unremitting violation of these inalienable rights which Arab people must and should have, as many people around the world do, clearly vindicates the findings of the authors of the UN report and all those who call for greater transparency, democracy and good governance in a region that has yet to experience a renaissance to uplift it from the gutter it is in today. Instead of heeding the call by Arab intellectuals and academics to empower their people, to extend political and civil freedoms and to dismantle the culture of oppression and censorship, Arab governments have systematically increased their crackdowns on the press. If they’re not blatantly controlling what’s printed and broadcast by the media, they have certainly increased the pressure on journalists, who by and large are forced into self-censorship. The case in Egypt is a prime example of the hypocritical and schizophrenic environment Arab journalists operate in. Journalists are led to believe — under the guise of political openness — that various Arab constitutions guarantee freedom of the press and that ratified legislation such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows them to carry out their duties in an uninterrupted fashion. Yet nothing is further from the truth. In actual fact, constitutions in the Arab world do not implement the laws they set out to. Worse, Arab governments themselves shockingly violate laws codified by their constitutions. This isn’t merely my opinion, but that of the UNDP report, and other organisations. The Arab world enjoyed the least press freedom in the world in 2004, according to both Reporters Sans Frontières and Freedom House, a non-profit organisation founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and others concerned with the mounting threats to peace and democracy. There is not one country in the Arab world today that has a free or even a fledgling free press. Even in Lebanon, which is closest to being an exception, there are incidents of journalists receiving death threats and the premises of news stations coming under attack. The only country to have a free press in the Middle East and North Africa is Israel. May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. It is a day that is celebrated every year and serves to be an occasion to inform the world of violations of the right to freedom of expression and, more importantly, a reminder that many journalists are courageous enough to stand up to death or imprisonment on a regular basis as they perform their jobs. A free press is one of the most essential components of a democratic society, which in turn is a prerequisite for sustainable social and economic development, according to the UN and various other organisations. No journalist should fear for their life, just as no citizen should be reluctant to voice their opinion. The freedom to think, say and choose are all sacrosanct pillars of a democratic society and the culture of impunity that exists today in our part of the world cannot continue unabated as it has for so long. Hitherto, the following quote by the famous Caliph and companion of the Prophet Mohammad, Omar Bin Al Khattab speaks volumes: “Since when have you compelled people to enslavement, when their mothers birthed them free?” It would be prudent for those in authority to listen. Massoud A. Derhally is Business & Diplomatic Editor of Arabian Business.||**||

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