Arab governments move to restrict satellite TV

New York, February 15, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the adoption of a charter by the council of Arab information ministers intended to regulate and control satellite TV stations.

Called “Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region,” the document mainly targets privately owned stations that have been airing criticism of Arab governments. The 13-article document bans “negative influence on social peace and national unity and public order and decency.”

The document requires Arab satellite broadcasters to exercise freedom of expression with “responsibility and awareness” and without harming “the supreme interests of Arab states.” It also bans any broadcasting “in contradiction with the principles of Arab solidarity” and defaming Arab “leaders or national and religious symbols.”

“This is an unacceptable move on the part of autocratic governments to rob viewers of the already small amount of broadcast freedom they have enjoyed on private television,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Arab governments should immediately disavow this shameful document and hold their countries to international standards for freedom of expression.”

The document gives the green light for each Arab state to take “necessary legislative measures to deal with the violations” of the charter, including by “confiscating broadcasting equipment” and withdrawing or ending broadcasting authorization. Egypt and Saudi Arabia initiated the proposal.

Lebanon was the only state of the 22 members of the Arab League to oppose the document during the meeting of the ministers of information on Tuesday. Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said in an Al-Jazeera interview that his country opposed the charter. Qatar, whose widely popular satellite network Al-Jazeera seems to be the most targeted by autocratic Arab rulers, abstained from voting. Egyptian Minister of Information Anas al-Fiqi was quoted by Reuters as saying that Qatar “decided to enter a reservation, out of fear that the charter could contain any provisions that contradict Qatari law.”

Agence France-Presse reported that Qatari officials said they were “still studying the document” and did not “currently want to adopt” the charter for legal, not political reasons.

“Any code of ethics or governance for journalistic practices should emerge, and be governed, from within the profession and not be imposed externally by political institutions,” Wadah Khanfar, director general of the Al-Jazeera Network, said in a statement today. “The region has seen the recent emergence of many media institutions and every attempt should be made not to hamper, but to facilitate, an environment to encourage their independence and freedom.”