DOHA: Judging from differing viewpoints presented on media freedom by speakers from the GCC countries at a forum being held in Manama, it became evident yesterday that not all member-states have a uniform stand on the issue.
While speakers from some GCC states spoke strongly in favour of a free media, those from other countries toed the official line and called for reining in the media over security concerns.
“It was quite clear, based on the viewpoints speakers from different GCC states presented on media freedom at today’s forum, that not all member-states share a similar view on the issue,” said Dr Ahmed Abul Malik.
Malik, a renowned Qatari author and journalist, moderated a key panel discussion on media freedom and the issue of national security in the GCC states at a forum in Manama.
The two-day conference being held on the sidelines of the 21s meeting of GCC information ministers kicked off in the Bahraini capital yesterday.
It is being attended by a large number of media professionals, experts and educationists, aside from officials from the six GCC states.
The event assumes significance since it is being organized in the wake of the role of social media in Arab Spring and fast-spreading use of social media in the GCC states.
Interestingly, Samira Rajab, Bahrain’s information minister, while opening the forum, defended the right of a state to “protect itself” against what she said was an avalanche of false and misleading information spread by vested interests through the social media.
“Unleashing wrong and misleading information and propaganda against a state can have dangerous implications for its future,” she cautioned, implying the need for legislations to rein in the media.
Backing her up, a senior interior ministry official from Bahrain, Colonel Mohamed bin Dina, said media freedom didn’t mean it can infringe upon the freedom of others. Current trends in the Arab world show that the social media was being used to incite sectarian passions and ideological extremism, he said.
The national security begins with people’s security, he said, justifying the need to rein in the media with legislations.
“Social media by itself doesn’t threaten national security. It is important to see who is using it and for what purpose,” said Al Dina.
The GCC countries are leading the Arab world in the use of social media. Citing the example of Bahrain, he said between April and June of this year social media users in Bahrain alone had risen to one million (half the country’s population).
Another official from a GCC state, Isa Abdul Rahman, told the forum that some 10.8 million people tweeted daily in the Arab world and 47 percent of them were from Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh alone.
“So there is indeed the need for legislation to regulate the social media and protect national security,” he said.
But journalist-speakers rubbished the idea of reining in social media with the help of law and said such efforts would prove futile.
Saudi columnist Saleh Al Shahi said the vast majority of social media users in the GCC were the youth. “So whatever the interior ministries do to keep checks on them would prove a waste of time,” he said.
Jaber Al Harami, editor-in-chief of Qatar’s Al Sharq newspaper, also pooh-poohed the idea of legally controlling social media. “Try it, you will not succeed,” he hinted.
The UAE’s prominent scribe, Mohamed Al Hammadi, said too much concern for national security meant that journalists in the region were working under tremendous pressure.
Saudi Arabia’s Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist known for his boldness, minced no words: “The media is a weapon in the hands of the authorities and some others. They are using it to control the flow of information”.
Some speakers, seemingly annoyed by the idea of linking media freedom to national security, questioned the very concept of national security.
“Is it the security of a state or of an authority or security of individuals? What is national security? We must have a clear definition of the term,” said a speaker.