Monday, 28 November 2011

Flurry of Media Laws in Wake of Arab Spring

Across the Arab world in 2011, governments from Mauritania to Syria have passed new laws to regulate the media, whether liberalising formerly state-controlled sectors or tightening control and extending it to news websites and electronic media.

Algerian newspapers

This article was first published in The Middle East, November 2011

Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, this flurry of legislation came as a reaction to the growing use of online media by political activists, and the erosion of the state’s monopoly of broadcasting as pan-Arab satellite TV enters its third decade.

In Tunisia and Egypt, which have both enjoyed a post-revolution media boom, old attitudes towards freedom of expression persist among the remnants of the former regimes. Nevertheless, some countries appear to be discarding draconian media laws and moving towards genuine media liberalisation.

Plans by Algeria and Mauritania to open up their media sectors have provoked a mixture of approval and scepticism.

In September, Mauritania said it would allow the setting-up of five private commercial radio stations and five TV channels. The head of the Union of Mauritanian Journalists, Houssein Ould Imedou, said the move would enable citizens "to own media outlets that would represent their views and express their desires without any censorship or dictates".

But sociologist Ibrahim Ould Sidi expressed fears that private broadcasting would be dominated by tribes, "at the expense of professionalism and efficiency", while writer Said Ould Habib voiced concerns that the state would retain control by other means.

In Algeria, which has a long history of press pluralism, the cabinet appeared to meet a key opposition demand when it passed a draft law in September to open up the television sector to private channels by 2012.  Private stations would be regulated by an official  body and need a government licence. "The move appears to have come under the pressure of pro-democracy popular uprisings that have swept across several Arab countries over the past few months," the BBC commented.

Algeria’s leading Arabic daily Al-Khabar and the French-language daily Al-Watan, both long-standing critics of government policy, plan to launch TV and radio stations. But journalist Larabi Zeouak was cautious, predicting that only government allies and loyalists would receive licences to operate TV stations.

The draft media law also envisages a regulatory body to "strengthen press freedoms", as well as decriminalising press offences. But the Algerian journalists' union said the latter provision was merely a "return to normality", and dismissed the draft law as "containing nothing new".

In the run-up to Tunisia’s constituent assembly elections in October, an independent media reform committee criticised the interim government for failing to endorse two draft laws regulating the press and the audiovisual sector. Some journalists fear that elements of the old guard are conspiring with senior media figures to block the development of genuinely free media, and that the former regime's restrictions could be reimposed. There is still no clear and specific legislation relating to digital media, which played a central role in Tunisia’s political transition. On a positive note, 12 licences have been granted for new FM radio stations.

In Libya, until a stable government with nationwide authority is formed, dozens of daily and weekly publications, FM radio stations and satellite TV channels continue to operate in a free but unregulated and chaotic media environment. The challenge in drawing up post-conflict legislation will be, in the words of Paris-based media freedom organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), to enable resistance media that have been combating disinformation and propaganda to evolve into media for political stability.

In Egypt, amidst claims that some media have abused the new climate of free expression that followed the ousting of former President Mubarak in February, there have been calls for greater regulation. While partisanship and campaigning in the media for Islamist, secular or progressive groups is hardly unexpected, several newspapers and TV channels stand accused of rumour-mongering and disseminating false and unverified news likely to cause social unrest.

However, critics have questioned how a body such as the Information Ministry - associated with decades of authoritarian rule and abolished days after Mubarak’s downfall, then reinstated in July – could play any role in future media reform. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the reinstatement of the Information Ministry as "a substantial setback for media freedom in Egypt".

In September, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the cabinet suspended the issuing of new licences to private satellite TV channels. Officials insisted the move was temporary, but said action was essential to confront channels that "instigate sedition and violence and cause instability at such a critical phase".

Speculation since June that the SCAF would pass a new media law has proved unfounded. Nevertheless, self-censorship remains common among Egyptian journalists, and some observers fear that censorship and intimidation of journalists are creeping back to Mubarak-era levels.

American academic and veteran Middle East correspondent Lawrence Pintak argues that Egypt is a unique case. "There has been an explosion of new media, particularly TV, outlets in the regulatory chaos following Mubarak's overthrow. Many of those outlets have proven irresponsible in their coverage, others effectively aggressive, and both are creating a backlash from the military," he told The Middle East.


Despite the Jordanian government’s stated aim of increasing freedom of the press through proper regulation, journalists fear that two draft laws approved by parliament this summer will have the opposite effect.

In August, the lower house endorsed amendments to the press and publications law which would treat news websites as "newspapers" for legal purposes.

Electronic media would have a choice between registering officially with the government and benefiting from "guarantees" specified in the press law, or remaining unregistered and being subject to the provisions of other laws such as the Penal Code and the Cyber Crimes Law.

While some MPs called for more monitoring of electronic media to curb alleged defamation, character assassination and false reporting, others maintained that controlling websites was unfeasible.

"News websites have been the main vehicle for pro-reform popular movements that have sprouted up across the country," Oraib Rintawi of the Al Quds Centre for Political Studies told the Jordan Times. A survey by the Centre found that 65 per cent of Jordanian journalists were against the amended law.

Jordan’s Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) said the amendments "posed a new threat to e-reporters as they added more constraints to the electronic media". The CDFJ added that the law would not prohibit the arrest of journalists, who still faced the threat of trial in the State Security Court and imprisonment under other laws such as the Penal Code.

Media freedom concerns grew in September after MPs endorsed the Anti-Corruption Commission draft law, which journalists regard as a setback to efforts to expose and combat corruption.


In August Syria adopted a new law setting out "media principles, journalists' duties and rights, and licensing procedures for launching audiovisual, printed and electronic media," in the words of the official Syrian news agency SANA. A National Council of Information will be set up, which will have "administrative and financial independence". SANA added that the new law was part of Syria’s continuing process of "comprehensive reform". At its core was the principle that media should be "independent and fulfill their mission freely, and are only restricted by the constitution and the law".

Freedom of expression should be exercised "with responsibility and awareness," the law cautions. It also bans the publication of any content "that affects national unity and national security, harms the holy religions and beliefs, or incites sectarian or confessional strife… [or] acts of violence and terrorism".

Syrian pro-regime journalists hailed the new legislation, but critics said that while it tried to give the impression that media freedom was being expanded, it lacked any credibility. "A harsh crackdown has been going on for the past six months, many journalists and free speech defenders have been jailed, and the number of citizens being killed grows by the day," RSF said on 29 August.

Journalists Sceptical

The media landscape in every Arab country has its own characteristics. But the tide of change and the calls for reform that have swept through the Arab world in the past 12 months have been a common factor in driving governments to bring in these new media laws.

Mohamed Ahmad, a Cairo-based analyst of the Arab media, said: "The passing of media laws in several Arab countries is definitely related to the upheaval sweeping across the Arab world, but the intentions and motives vary from one country to another. For example, in the case of Algeria, the planned opening up of the audiovisual sector is clearly an attempt to absorb anger and send a message that a greater measure of media freedom, together with promised political reforms, are on the way."

Most Arab journalists feel a mix of suspicion blended with cautious welcome. In the words of Lawrence Pintak, "they are pleased with their newfound power, but concerned about the backlash and sceptical about the future."

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