By Mohamed Shokry of BBC Monitoring on 14 February
At a meeting in Cairo on 12 February 2008, information ministers of 21 Arab countries adopted a charter that sets out new regulations for satellite TV output in the Arab world. Only Qatar voiced reservations about the charter, on the grounds that it might contravene Qatari law.
The idea of the document, which is entitled "Principles on regulation of radio and television satellite transmission in the Arab region", was floated by Egypt and backed by Saudi Arabia.
The adoption of the charter has given rise to fears over the measure of freedom the Arab media have achieved over the past decade. Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV, which has angered many Arab governments since it was launched in 1996, is believed to be a key target.
The 12-clause charter stresses that the output of satellite stations should not "negatively affect social or national unity". It highlights freedom of expression "as a cornerstone in Arab media activity", which should be practised "in a way that would protect the higher interests of the Arab countries and the Arab world, respect the freedoms and rights of others and abide by the ethics of the media profession".
The document lays emphasis on respecting "the principle of national sovereignty of each country on its soil" and "the privacy of individuals, which should not be violated in any way".
It also stresses that satellite stations should "refrain from inciting to hatred or discrimination" or "broadcasting any form of incitement to violence and terrorism, which should be distinguished from the right to resist occupation".
According to the charter, the stations should also "refrain from broadcasting anything tha! t involves disrespect to God, heavenly religions, prophets, doctrines and religious symbols".
Is Al-Jazeera the main target?
The adoption of the charter has raised questions as to whether certain media outlets were particularly targeted.
Yunus, a university student from Morocco, said in a comment posted on the Al-Jazeera website: "This agreement and this measure are aimed at the entire Arab media, mainly Al-Jazeera." "All this is because Al-Jazeera for them [Arab rulers] is the one that shakes their stability and their stay in power," he added.
"By this decision, they want to take us back to the era of a single channel that glorifies the ruler and speaks only about his good qualities," Abu Jundul said in a comment posted on the website of the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi.
"This conference comes after the embarrassment caused to the Arab governments because of the siege on Gaza and the popular solidarity campaign which coincided with the excellent media coverage that aroused public opinion," he added.
Religious channels involved
As far as Egypt is concerned, one additional reason for the charter is the recent spread of religious channels. These channels host religious clerics who have sometimes issued fatwas that caused much controversy. Al-Nas (People) TV, for example, is one of these channels.
During a news conference following the adoption of the charter, Egyptian Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi flagged up the issue of programes of a religious nature that issued "fatwas and deception".
In a comment posted on Al-Jazeera's website, an anonymous contributor said that the charter also targeted "some channels on which religious jurists talk throughout the day".
Charter defended, Egypt first to apply it
During his news conference, the Egyptian information minister defended the document, saying that "organizing the media industry aims at enriching this industry".
"We are biased in favour of media freedom and freedom of expression, but within a disciplined context," Al-Fiqi added. "The main reason behind our position is to protect the Arab citizen's right to healthy media that respect their traditions and customs".
Al-Fiqi stressed that Egypt would be the first to apply the charter. "Since we are the ones who called for this extraordinary meeting, we should be the first to apply it", he said.
Is it binding?
On whether the agreement was binding or not, Al-Fiqi said the agreement could be seen as "advisory legislation for countries that decide to develop their legislation to confront these challenges. However, the mere fact that [the agreement] has been endorsed by the council of Arab information ministers means that it is binding".
He said the Egyptian Information Ministry would forward it to the competent quarters. "We expect this to happen in most countries out of respect for this document," said the minister.
He stressed that the agreement was "binding" on Egyptian media and would be added to previous agreements signed with the media.
The charter has drawn angry international reactions.
Arib al-Rintawi of Jordan's Al-Dustur said in a commentary on 14 February: "We have ended with a martial and unified press and publication law which bears the false codename of the Media Honour Charter. It is weighed down with prohibitive and roaring penalties and is confusingly vague... In reality, it only aims to keep the critical voices of citizens, intellectuals, political and civil elites from reaching rulers and governments."
On 13 February, the International Federation of Journalists issued a media release condemning the charter.
"This charter is a step backwards from the open and challenging developments in Arab satellite broadcasting of the past few years," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "It could deal a serious blow to press freedom if it limits media to broadcasting government-friendly views," he added.
The Paris-based organization ! Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) also condemned the new regulations, describing them as "not only repressive but also retrograde".
"Instead of working to relax the often very rigid press laws in force in their countries, the Arab League information ministers have banded together to put pressure on news media that have been annoying them and escaping their control," RSF said.
Source: BBC Monitoring research 14 Feb 08