Saturday,18 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Saturday,18 November, 2017
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Media democracy crisis

It is high time Arab regimes bow to the changes brought forth by information technology and revise restrictions on Arab media in line with international standards and freedoms, writes Awatef Abdel-Rahman

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gainst the backdrop of the impetus given to democratising forces in the world unleashed by the revolution in information and communication technology, the Arab world experienced a new wave of primarily outward, top-down political plurality. This was mirrored in various forms of media diversity and a relative expansion in the margins of freedom of opinion and expression. Nevertheless, political authorities retained an arsenal of legislative restrictions inimical to press freedoms.

Unfortunately, many problems affecting the media profession have grown more acute and complicated due to technological advances, international pressures for democratic reform, the continued government legislative and security grip over the press, and the emergence of a new threat to the freedom of opinion and expression, namely the mounting influence of big business with its persistent encroachments into the Arab media through the leverage of advertising money, the establishment of private satellite stations and attempts to purchase journalists’ silence. 

The following are some legislative and professional courses, espoused by enlightened experts in law and the media, that the Arab journalistic community should advocate while pressing for the advancement of an Arab media capable of competing in today’s world while adhering to a spirit of professionalism, moral commitment and human rights awareness.

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EGISLATIVE ACTIONS: First, promote the freedom of publication and broadcasting: This freedom is the foundation on which the freedoms of opinion and expression are built in the press and media. Although Arab lawmakers have been reluctant to provide for full freedom in publication and broadcasting for fear of the influence of foreign capital and the sway of those who dominate world markets, the communications revolution and unlimited flow of information across continents have put paid to such arguments that support a legislative system that restricts press freedoms. Accordingly, Arab governments should bow to such realities and subject laws regulating the media and the press to thorough revision with an eye to eliminating restrictive provisions so as to bring national media in line with modern international standards and universal liberties.

Second, promote the application of legislation guaranteeing the right of access to information: While laws to this effect may actually be on the books, they lack the necessary mechanisms to enforce this right. At the same time, the notion of what constitutes classified information that should not be published remains very ambiguous, making it possible for executive authorities to expand this concept over a vast range of information, citing national security or military secrecy whereas often the aim is to protect the interests of the ruling regime. In all events, even such prohibitions have become difficult to maintain in light of technological advances in the fields of surveillance and hacking. 

Third, promote journalists’ rights: If it is constitutionally and morally wrong not to penalise ethical wrongdoings on the part of some journalists or media figures, such as slander and defamation, it is equally wrong to criminalise journalists who exercise the freedoms of opinion and expression in the pursuit their profession, since this is essentially the heart of the journalistic career. In addressing this dilemma, Arab lawmakers should work to ensure that journalists are not subject to arrest or detention for reasons related to the pursuit of their profession and that penalties for slander, defamation and the like are limited to fines or payment of compensation. They should also ensure that, in such suits, the burden of proof of malicious intent falls on the prosecution.

In working to create a legislative system more conducive to the protection of press freedoms and the rights of journalists, lawmakers should bear in mind that these freedoms and rights are intrinsically linked to the essence of the democratic process.

 

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CCUPATIONAL ACTIONS: First, a drive to modernise the journalistic work environment in the Arab world: Any serious drive towards this end must focus first and foremost on the journalists themselves: ways to improve their education and training, arming them with awareness of the laws regulating their profession, and encouraging them to exercise the skills of constructive criticism. They should also receive training in how to resist pressures and enticements on the part of sources, although a good part of this entails ensuring their economic and professional rights, and above all the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to participate in decision-making processes that affect their profession. Encouraging democratic relations within press and media organisations is another important dimension of the process.

Second, the modernisation of the technological structure of media establishments: Advances in communications and information technology, in addition to adding to the qualifications that new generations of journalists must possess, have given rise to new forms of journalistic techniques, some of which depend on collective efforts. In today’s world, occupational competence alone is not sufficient to compete in a highly competitive international news market.

Third, boost the role of journalist syndicates and federations in the Arab world: If such organisations are to perform the functions expected of them, they need to be freed from government control and the sway of the financial influence of big business. Simultaneously, journalists need to be encouraged to adhere to journalistic codes of ethics, which ultimately seek to safeguard their rights, dignity and legacy of defending the freedoms of opinion and expression in the course of exposing various social and political ills.


The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

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