By Salama A Salama
The document agreed upon recently by Arab information ministers was greeted mostly with disbelief. This goes to show how out of touch ministers were when they tried to regulate satellite broadcast. Arab information ministers didn't appear knowledgeable of the far-reaching developments that satellite broadcasting has undergone worldwide. They didn't seem well informed about previous attempts in democratic countries to create a regulatory mechanism and keep it flexible and adaptable. Nor did they seem mindful that Arab societies are in need of independent media that is free from government control and that is not dominated by greedy business moguls.
The only thing the document makes clear is that the ministers were worried about alleged "excesses" of some satellite stations. Reading between the lines, one senses that the ambiguous wording of the document was intentional. The document most likely aimed to protect rulers and political figures from criticism, deny opposition forces access to independent media, and disguise the fact that Arab nations oppose US and Israeli policies while our rulers have lost the heart to do the same.
It seems obvious that our ministers of information want to control, or at least bully, the media. In their document, they threaten to withdraw or suspend licences for satellite stations, or stop renewing them. They didn't, however, come up with a legal mechanism or technical criteria that would allow regulations to proceed in an orderly and objective fashion.
When more developed countries faced a similar situation, they formulated regulatory measures that were firm without being oppressive. Their actions didn't stop satellite broadcasting from growing into a booming business, attracting investment and advertising and playing a major role in spreading political and social awareness. As a result, satellite broadcast proceeded to promote cultural values while providing refined entertainment. That is the situation in countries that introduced appropriate regulations for both public-run and commercial channels.
The first thing other countries did was to form councils including members of governments, civil society organisations, and political parties. These councils -- and not any particular minister or party -- were then given the power to grant licences and ensure the independence of satellite broadcast media. Separate organisational councils were formed to monitor the financing of private stations, prevent monopoly, and uphold ethical standards. Inflammatory and biased material, for example, was banned, and so was the screening of adult films except at late hours. Such considerations introduced a certain sense and decorum without compromising free expression.
What our information ministers -- whose very jobs don't exist in advanced countries -- fail to understand is that the whole world is embracing pluralism in the media. Across the globe, countries are granting protections to the media through transparent laws, not subjecting broadcasters to arbitrary and ill-advised measures. Elsewhere, regulations are designed not by governments, but rather professionals, producers, consumers and civil society groups. Such are the regulators who continue to monitor the media, address complaints, assess performance, and issue warnings.
Instead of recommending similar measures, our information ministers went in the opposite direction. Their suggestions can only turn free Arab media into repetitive tools of propaganda, speaking in a single voice, offering viewers neither reliable information nor valid insight.
The document issued by the information ministers is not going to turn the clock back. Satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera will continue attracting viewers, as will other Arab language services such as France 224, Russia Today, Euronews, and the soon-to-be- launched BBC Arabic service. Together, these satellite services will offer Arab viewers access to free and uncensored media. Our viewers will keep watching -- and looking for -- satellite stations that cannot be brought down by security services, pen-pushing bureaucrats, or even foreign governments.