Censorship and chilling effect will not work

 17 Jun 2017 - 10:11

It was fear or frustration or most likely the mix of both that compelled three Gulf states to impose curbs on the media linked to Doha much before severing diplomatic ties and imposing unjustified sanctions on Qatar.

Al Jazeera was the first victim of their gagging move. The websites of Qatar-based English and Arabic news networks were also blocked in three Gulf countries and Egypt as well.  It started immediately after the hacking of QNA website and publication of a false report on Qatar’s official news agency attributing a totally fabricated news story to the Emir H H Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.  

Are we living in the 21st century revolutionized by digitisation and free rather unstoppable flow of information or is it George Orwell’s imaginary dystopia as he paints in his novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” where even unuttered beliefs can be criminalized as “thoughtcrime”?

Definitely, we are living at the peak time of globalization kick-started in the latter half of the 20th century. No doubt, in political history of mankind, censorship tool has been a favourite tool of the powerful regimes along with enacting gagging acts but those ages are now over. The modern history has also witnessed that kind of censorship when Israel banned artwork composed of the four colours of the Palestinian flag and Palestinians were put behind bars for even carrying sliced watermelons. 

At the one hand, the three Gulf states shut down offices of Al Jazeera network in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain and on the other started intimidating their people of dire punishments if they expressed sympathy with Qatar on the social media. Censorship combined with chilling effect.  

By using ‘chilling effect’ tool, these countries intend to curtail legal right of free speech of their people but ground realities speak otherwise as these coercive measures have virtually failed suppressing people’s emotions of sympathy and solidarity with Qatar. 

“Arab countries engaged in a dispute with Qatar have shut down media outlets with links to or considered sympathetic to the Qatari government. The action is a violation of freedom of expression,” Human Rights Watch has stated. 

“Individuals have a right to express a variety of perspectives on current events,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments don’t have the right to close down media outlets and criminalize speech to shut out criticism they find uncomfortable.”

The authorities in three GCC countries have redefined cyber-crime to frighten people with protracted imprisonment and hefty fines in case they expressed sympathy with Qatar. Vint Cerf, globally recognised as “Father of the Internet”, once said: “I see government control of the Internet failing because the Web is almost entirely privately owned.” 

Reporters Without Borders has also condemned the crackdown on Al Jazeera. “Closing Al-Jazeera’s bureau is a political decision that amounts to censoring this TV broadcaster. In Saudi Arabia, this violation of the freedom to inform compounds the country’s already very bad record on free speech and media freedom, We urge the Saudi authorities to rescind this decision and to let Al Jazeera resume operating,” has said Reporters Without Borders Middle East Director Alexandra El Khazen.

Al Jazeera itself has denounced restrictions saying, “We call upon the government to respect the freedom of the press and allow journalists to continue to do their job free of intimidation and threats.”
Not only Al Jazeera satellite TV has been targeted but these three GCC member states have also banned selling beIN Sports receivers and cards in their countries, a step which is being widely and rightly condemned across the globe. Extending politics to sports stadiums is sorrowfully sordid!   

 Showing great respect for freedom of press and adhering to healthy diplomatic norms, Qatar on the other hand, did not adopt retaliatory moves and has not slapped any kind of restriction on any newspaper or electronic media outlet having links with these three Gulf countries. Rather, Qatar government has asked its people “to show a sense of responsibility by refraining from directing any kind of abuses to other countries, their leaders or their peoples”. 

 “The right of Qatari citizens and residents to express their opinions is always guaranteed, however keeping in mind the Islamic and cultural values that has been bestowed on us,” Qatar’s Government Communication Office said. 

Despite precipitous propaganda campaigns being run by neighbouring countries’ media outlets aimed at demonizing Qatar to create a “moral panic” among people using false accusations of “supporting terrorism”, Qatar is allowing these media houses to operate in Qatar and has not shut down any facility of any media outlet or blocked any newspaper website. 

At the same time, Qatar has made it clear in categorical terms that in diplomatic dialogue with opposing countries, Al Jazeera will be off the table. “Doha rejects discussing any matter related to Al Jazeera channel as it considers it an internal affair,” Qatar News Agency quoted the foreign minister as saying. “Decisions concerning the Qatari internal affairs are Qatari sovereignty - and no one has to interfere with them.”

Terming Al Jazeera “voice of the voiceless”, Ruben Banerjee, former online editor at Al Jazeera, writes in Hindustan Times: “The journalism that the channel practices is mostly exemplary. 

Al Jazeera’s very deep pockets allow it to hire the best and brightest and the newsroom drawn from all continents and across nationalities is a mini-United Nations. More boots on the ground in places such as the Arab world and Africa gives it a cutting edge over other international rivals.”

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has also called on three Gulf states and their allies that have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar to stop treating journalists as “political footballs”. 
Anthony Bellanger, the secretary-general for the Brussels-based organisation, has said in a statement: “We utterly condemn moves to force the closure of Al Jazeera, throw its journalists out of jobs and undermine the freedom to inform, and the right to free speech and free media.”

“Journalists doing their jobs and their families - husbands, wives and children - must not be used as political footballs in this dispute,” Bellanger said.

Three Gulf countries and their allies which think that by shutting down media outlets and enforcing the strictest laws they will change the course of time in their favour are gravely mistaken. They should bear in mind that every individual in today’s world is equipped with a ‘seventh mass media channel’ (mobile phone) which empowers them beating clampdowns and censorships sitting in their cozy couches.   

 (The writer is a Doha-based journalist)