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No Freedom Without Free Press
Published on Tuesday, December 2, 2003 by the Toronto Star
No Freedom Without Free Press
by Antonia Zerbisias
 

Readers often ask me why it is I am always hammering on about freedom of the press.

Some have even asked me whether it isn't sometimes better to curtail that particular freedom in order to preserve other freedoms, or to support a government in unstable times. Isn't it better that the media be kind to George W. Bush so he can win his war on terror, and not foment dissent so that he can wage that war in peace?

Here's the short answer: No.

Here's the long one ...

In an interview earlier this year at Berkeley, where he delivered a prestigious international studies lecture, author/broadcaster Tariq Ali (The Clash Of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, And Modernity) was asked why there was no Reformation in Islam, no religious revolution like that launched by Martin Luther in Catholic Europe.

"(W)hen the printing press came into Europe, there was a reformist sultan in power in Istanbul on the Ottoman throne who said, `This sounds to me like a good idea. We should have a printing press,'" Ali said, in outlining his answer. "(I)mmediately the clerics and the religious officers came and said, `Remember Martin Luther? Do you know how many copies of Martin Luther were printed on these printing presses, which wrecked Christianity? Do you want that to happen here?' And so he retreated."

Last month, former U.S. presidential contender Al Gore connected the dots.

Telling students in Tennessee about how the printing press the world's first mass media maker was banned throughout the Ottoman Empire, he said: "Democracy does not appear very commonly in the Arabic world today."

Okay, so it didn't help that European imperialists had their way in Africa and the Middle East. But still, it can't be a coincidence that, as a United Nations study revealed in October, the Arab world is a laggard when it comes to the information age.

"The (Arab Human Development) Report affirms that knowledge can help the region to expand the scope of human freedoms, enhance the capacity to guarantee those freedoms through good governance and achieve the higher moral human goals of justice and human dignity," says the study, which makes a case for freeing up the Arab press and ensuring the rights to free expression and assembly.

The report, available at hdr.undp.org, notes that in Arab countries only 53 newspapers are published per day per 1,000 citizens, compared to 285 newspapers per 1,000 citizens in the developed world. It is not unusual for journalists to go to jail there. Book print runs are tiny, with 5,000 copies making a bestseller. (That's also what the statistic is for English-speaking Canada, which counts as many citizens as all of Saudi Arabia.) Even prize-winning novels are banned; their authors persecuted. As for the content of the books, religious works account for nearly one-fifth of the pathetic Arabic book production, compared to a world average of five per cent for religious books.

For Arabs to enjoy a free and open society, they need free and open debate. To enjoy a free and open debate, they need a free and open press. Right?

So why is it that when modern, viable news organizations rise up in the Arab world, those who would like to bring freedom to that world, or say they would, shut them down?

Consider the fate of the TV networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.

The former, as most Canadians know, was responsible for bringing less than pleasant/palatable images of the attack on Iraq to western TV screens. Its bureaus, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, were bombed by the U.S. Its journalists have been arrested, jailed and killed by coalition forces.

Just for the record, the Qatar-based network, which launched in 1996, has been condemned by Arab nations/rulers as well as American ones. Al-Arabiya, an Al-Jazeera Lite backed by Saudi, Kuwaiti and Lebanese investors, has been in business a couple of years. Both have been described by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as "violently anti-coalition" although their only ammo is words.

In September, both services were banned, for two weeks, from covering the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), a body made up of foreigners and outsiders appointed by occupiers. The networks were accused of inciting violence, by focusing too much on anti-U.S. attacks and providing airtime to the anti-occupation forces.

In other words, the networks were being censured and censored.

Then, last month, the council struck again: It prohibited Al-Arabiya from broadcasting from Iraq and seized its equipment in Baghdad. Its journalists face $1,000 fines and a year in prison if they break the ban. This because they aired a taped message, supposedly from former president Saddam Hussein, calling for attacks on Iraqis co-operating with the occupiers.

Never mind that CNN, BBC and other networks run the same tapes. They just can't be run by Arabs in Arabic.

Meanwhile George Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority which supervises the IGC is determined to put out the " truth." It recently announced that it's about to run its own good news network to counteract all the bad new out of Baghdad in American media.

All of which makes me wonder: Have these guys been reading their own constitution or smoking it?

And how do they expect to bring freedom to the Arab world if their attitude to the press is anything but free?

Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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