The future of free media and freedom of speech in the Gulf

 31 Jan 2018 - 9:20

As the famous French writer and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville once opined, “There can never be real newspapers without democracy nor democracy without newspapers”. Indeed, a political system that protects freedom of speech, thought, and belief must guarantee that citizens have access to information and the freedom to engage in societal dialogues. Restrictions on freedom of communication, media, and speech will inevitably undermine a country’s democratic institutions. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ constitutions explicitly stipulate freedom of expression. Yet in practice, codes and regulations ban certain speech, confiscate books and periodicals, and regulate broadcasting, making the Arabian Peninsula’s environment one where there are severe restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Journalists in the GCC who challenge the governments’ narratives are subjected to arrests and fines. There are numerous leaders and high-ranking officials in these Arabian countries whom the citizens are prohibited from criticizing. 

To be sure, the leadership of certain GCC states has been committed to ensuring that the Arabian Peninsula is a section of the Middle East where the media is controlled by tightly. On June 5, three GCC members — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Emirates (UAE )—along with Egypt, collectively known as the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) cut off diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. 

The ATQ later put forth a list of 13 demands that Doha would need to meet to resolve the GCC’s nearly six-month-old diplomatic row. Among a host of demands that would reduce Qatar’s influence in the Middle East if the emirate would ever capitulate was shutting down Al Jazeera, a Qatar-funded state-owned media network that has been critical of Arab regimes ever since its launch in the mid-1990s. Al Jazeera has been an issue in the ongoing Qatar crisis because the network has broken countless rules that media outlets in Arab countries obey. By covering important and sensitive political issues, Al Jazeera soon became targeted by other Arab state-owned media networks that sought to raise doubts of Al Jazeera’s credibility while spreading rumors about the Qatari media network’s alleged purpose to destabilize the region. 

During the GCC’s 2014 diplomatic spat, the ATQ’s three GCC states also pointed to Al Jazeera as a grievance of theirs and it was unsurprising when they took Al Jazeera of the air in their countries after the dispute broke out nearly six months ago. Indeed, the Qatar crisis has contributed to the shrinking of room for debate and dialogue within the countries blockading Qatar.

Underscoring the extent to which this is the case, the UAE now imprisons anyone for three to 15 years and fine him/her AED 500,000 if he/she publicly “expresses sympathy, inclination or favoritism toward Qatar”. In Bahrain certain individuals who publicly spoke out against Manama’s actions and/or in defense of Doha have faced severe punishments too.

Viewing the network as a key pillar of Qatar’s foreign policy and soft-power influence among a wider Arab/Muslim audience, the leadership in Doha has defiantly refused to shut down al-Jazeera or obey any of the other 12 demands. Last month, in an interview with Charlie Rose, the Emir of Qatar declared that his country will not close al-Jazeera. It was notable that the Qatari monarch was present at the 21st year anniversary of the network’s launch. 

Saudi Arabia has previously accused Al Jazeera of “promoting the plots of terrorist groups, supporting and supporting the Houthi militias in Yemen and trying to break the Saudi internal ranks by inciting the country out of control of the kingdom.” The country’s General Authority for Tourism and National Heritage warned against playing al-Jazeera in hotels and tourist facilities throughout the kingdom with fines up to USD 27,000 and the threat of revoking licenses. Later Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Tourism and National Heritage confirmed the deletion of all channels belonging to the network from the list of satellite broadcasts in the rooms and all tourist accommodation facilities.

According to The Independent, the media platforms in the ATQ countries have reported ‘fake news’ aimed at inciting action against Qatar. Al Arabiya specifically was involved in the manufacturing and promoting of inflammatory material against Qatar’s civil aircraft, publishing stories. 

A British law firm filed a formal complaint with the British Broadcasting Corporation (OFCOM) against Arab News and Sky News. According to the complaint, the hacking of the Qatar News Agency (QNA) resulted in the publication of fabricated statements attributed to the Emir of Qatar, falsely transmitted to all parts of the world, and the two channels did not comply with the laws of the OFCOM, including items requiring neutrality and the accuracy of the news, especially that QNA did not broadcast these statements on the system, “FTB” adopted in the exchange of news between Arab and international news agencies.

Although the Government Liaison Office and the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued press releases on the electronic penetration of the QNA and the real position of the fabricated statements, Al Arabiya and Sky News Arabia continued to report these fabricated statements. The two channels did not respond to attempts by the Liaison Office Government in Qatar. The transition of Al Arabiya and Sky News to play a direct and provocative role against Qatar for political purposes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere seems to be the culmination of a long process of unprofessional media action against Qatar. Saudi websites such as the Middle East, plus newspapers including Okaz and al-Watan have also been involved in this GCC media campaign of misinformation about Qatar in which counterfeit news has been treated as credible. Not only ATQ countries suppressed freedom of expression quite extensively, but their media outlets have reported on the Qatar crisis with an extreme bias, exemplified by Emirati and Saudi news channels not mentioning that the Emir of Qatar denied that he made the statements that were attributed to him as a result of the QNA being hacked. 

Throughout the Arabian Peninsula, authorities are launching campaigns that target social media activists, charging them with threatening national unity based on no particular evidence and many fabricated allegations. Twitter has come under growing pressure from GCC governments to pass over information about certain users who have been critical of the Arabian sheikdoms’ authorities. 

Political space is shrinking in the ATQ’s GCC countries as Riyadh, Manama, and Abu Dhabi become increasingly less tolerant of viewpoints that counter their narratives about the Qatar crisis among other sensitive issues in the region. Close monitoring of political and civil activists has become increasingly normalised and the press remains under the thumb of authorities who envision the Arabian Peninsula remaining a region that is free of networks such as Al Jazeera that provide a platform for critics of Arab governments and a network where ideas can be freely expressed and exchanged.

At a time when social contracts in the oil-rich Arabian sheikdoms are soon to be restructured due to low oil prices, an expensive war in Yemen, and other factors that are preventing the GCC states from spending on their citizens at levels high enough to easily purchase political acquiescence for the foreseeable future. 

Instead, of making democratic concessions to their citizens, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are imposing increasingly oppressive measures aimed at tightening these three governments’ control of language, tone, and expressions in the media. Although such efforts to pressure Qatar into closing al-Jazeera have proven futile, it is certainly understandable how these three GCC states have come to view the network as a threat to the Arabian Peninsula’s status quo political order.

Dr. Khalid Al Jaber (@Aljaberzoon) is the Director of the Gulf International Forum (@GulfIntlForum), a Washington, DC-based independent institution that educates the public on the Gulf region.