Press freedom in some Arab countries is exposed to restrictions which have sometimes included violence. The use of these measures has caused anxiety among cultural circles and among parts of the general public since press freedom is a reflection of the levels of freedom existing within society as a whole.
The measures taken against press freedom in some Arab countries must be discussed, studied and analyzed in order to discover the reasons for their use and to understand their impact on freedom of thought and the flow of information, especially with the proliferation of the Internet.
Freedom of thought has had its enemies throughout history. Socrates’ trial is an example from ancient history of how freedom is hated by the enemies of truth who will try to kill liberal thinking by any means. It might be killed by getting rid of the liberal person himself, either through a trial which leads to execution or through assassination. Regardless of the way the liberal person is killed, his right to free thought is eternal. Socrates’ ideas still live because his death was a flame that ignited many rich philosophical ideas.
It seems that suppressing ideas and "confiscating" opinions reflects the weakness of the party who cannot face opposition in the form of dissenting arguments and the presentation of evidence.
It is paramount that the right of others to express their opinions be upheld. This principle must be applied to the press as it is an important site at which information is exchanged. There is a big difference between rejecting an opinion after it is presented and defended, and suppressing it before it is made public.
Jailing journalists for ’publishing crimes’ implies violation of an individual’s right to express his opinion, at least during the period of the jail term. It also implies violation of basic human rights. It is the right of journalists to enjoy the freedom to conduct research and to discuss events critically without being considered to have defamed someone or to have falsified information.
Journalists’ capacity to research, reveal and direct public opinion can contribute to the fall of governments, as has occurred in advanced countries.
Given this situation it is clear that the press can wield a great deal of power. This does not mean that all that is written in papers is correct. Newspapers sometimes contain lies, exaggerations and falsifications - a situation which has occurred in leading international papers.
Some journalists in the Arab world seem to embrace the ideas of newspaper tycoons Lord Beaverbrook and William Randolph Hearst who at times accepted the sacrifice of the truth in favor of defaming their political opponents or using sensationalism to try to attract a large readership.
The adoption of such strategies, which violate journalistic ethics, by journalists in the Arab world is likely to lead them to court. While such actions might increase circulation, the strategy could easily backfire as a paper’s credibility with its readership might be damaged. Also, additional restrictions might be imposed on the press leading to a crisis between it and the state in which freedom of expression and the exchange of information are further restricted.
The violation of journalistic ethics is not a good reason to confiscate an edition of a paper, to close a paper or to jail journalists. There are other ways of punishing those who violate the ethics of their profession that would not impact negatively on the freedom of the press.
Additionally, the Arab reader is capable of distinguishing between real and false news. The Arab public also realizes how journalism can play a crucial role in fighting corruption. It also knows that the press in Arab and Third World countries remains loyal to the regimes in power even if it claims that it is independent and denies that it serves the regime in its country.
(The author is an Egyptian anthropologist. The Middle East Times took the article from Al Hayat, September 15, 1999)