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February 9, 2016

Editor at banned Arab news website warns: Media has moved backwards since the Arab Spring

Last month UK-based pro-democracy news website Al Araby was blocked by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. Here the site's senior editor James Brownsell writes about the challenges facing media freedom in the Middle East

If you were faced with the prospect of having your fingernails pulled out for scribbling some graffiti on a wall, or having your head caved in with rocks because someone said you were gay, not being able to get a decent newspaper may come some way down your list of civil complaints.

But when newspapers and TV networks are banned, the creation of the police state soon follows.

A free press is tied to the idea, not just of freedom of expression, but the freedom to dissent.

For decades, state propaganda ruled the airwaves in the Middle East. The only alternative was to secretly tune in to the Foreign Office-sponsored BBC World Service – an extension of colonial British soft power every bit as important as the pan-Arab satellite broadcasters that were to follow in the mid and late 1990s. That was the way the dictators and the quasi-elected rulers liked it, and still do.

Western governments must support independent media in the Middle East, as it’s a fundamantal tenet of democracy. And every time we see western capitals opt to accept authoritarianism, we see an increase in non-state violence.

In the Arab world, regime-owned media houses have projected a skewed view of the Arab Spring. The narrative has been that popular protests were whipped up by foreign agents, damaging countries’ stability, and undermining the security of their citizens. Yet the Arab Spring showed us all the power of the media when it reflects what’s really going on – and, by standing together, free speech and democracy itself can still be protected.

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But solidarity between media organisations is rare. You may expect when an outlet is banned, as ours has been, that competitors would set aside their rivalry to show solidarity with colleagues. But we have had little of that from the press of the Middle East, owned either by oligarchs and their corrupt cronies, or by leading military figures of despotic regimes. Many are scared of sharing our fate, others revel in our struggles.

One of the goals of the Arab Spring was democratic transparency – but our regional media has stepped backwards.

After the revolution in Egypt, there was some confusion within media circles – editors had become used to being told what to do, what to report, what to tell the citizenry to think. But since the army took over again, it has returned to idolising the ruler, presenting him as a hero to men and a sex symbol to women. They have turned him into an almost Jesus-like figure. Anyone standing against him, speaking out, or just posting on Facebook is presented as a terrorist or spy, with hundreds of death sentences issued in mass convictions of political opponents. It’s almost text-book fascism.

Egypt's minister of justice has said that for every police officer killed, 400 opposition members should be slaughtered in retaliation. The justice minister is actively encouraging people to commit murder. The head of Egypt's human rights committee threatened to throw a shoe at anyone who mentioned "human rights". But international media, keen to keep hold of press credentials, isn’t discussing any of this.

Media organisations need to agree to fight censorship – together. The largest gathering of media organisations in the Arab world is sponsored by Dubai, and held there every year. Yet how can they celebrate the virtues of a free press when it is one of the places that has banned us?

We are calling for reporters, producers, writers, sub-editors, analysts and opinion-makers to join us in the fight against censorship.

We're banned in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and your publication could be next. Let us band together and use our limited power to get MPs and media organisations raising questions and asking what's going on. Let's do our jobs and expose this injustice – if not for our own circulations, then to help build a future for the Middle East in which democracy, dignity and social justice may flourish.

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