Freedom of Expression: The Second Arab Battle

Recent history suggests that states that try to restrict their citizens’ ability to speak their mind peacefully and constructively are fighting a losing battle.

Syria and the uprisings in Bahrain and other countries represent one of the two important battles underway in the Arab world, whose outcomes will largely determine the future shape of Arab political systems. The second battle is not about who rules in a country, but rather about the right of a citizen to express him or herself.

The battle for freedom of expression has been waged for decades in many Arab countries, but before the digital age the security-state mind-control colonels could isolate and expatriate those views they did not like and that did not conform to official propaganda, while controlling most of the information that citizens obtained through available public media. The digital age changed this, and millions of citizens can now access news and views from thousands of sources on their cell phones and mobile computers, breaking the monopoly on news and ideas that governments formerly enjoyed.

In recent years, most Arab governments have tried to perpetuate the old ways of blocking media they did not like and keeping their citizens caged in a controlled space that only allowed official news to be disseminated in public. Most of these governments have recently given up on trying to manage the flow of news, views and entertainment, except for the controls they still enjoy through official licensing of newspapers, magazines and radio/television services.

Their inability to control information shared globally on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and the role of social media in some aspects of the Arab uprisings and revolutions, has now sparked a new round of government attempts to stop the dissemination of news and views by applying restrictive laws to the use of social media. This is most evident these days in the Gulf states, and is mirrored in other ways elsewhere, such as recent Jordanian and Egyptian laws that seek to restrict activities or free expression in the arenas of mass media and non-governmental organizations.

This is an important arena to watch for two reasons. It may be the logical follow-up to the first wave of citizen uprisings that focused on street demonstrations in countries that have a tradition of public political activism—breaking through the barrier of fear in technological arenas, rather than in Tahrir Square. It could also be the preferred means of self-expression in other countries that do not have a legacy of public activism, such as in most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Citizens who tweet their views or a news item (for instance, about the trials of UAE citizens accused of anti-state behavior) do not seek to overthrow their regimes. They are only exercising what they see as their right to express their views peacefully, including their right to question their government on some issues that matter to them, such as corruption or state spending priorities.

These developments throughout the Arab Gulf countries strike me as especially important to monitor, because citizens in countries like the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who keep pushing for greater freedom of expression may ultimately push their governance systems into new and uncharted modes of greater citizen participation. We do not know what the implications would be of the GCC countries, with their immense wealth and new political activism and clout, having their policies shaped more by their own citizens’ wishes than purely by the decisions of the existing ruling elites.

Most GCC governments have reacted with concern to their citizens’ heightened digital activism. Some of them, like Kuwait and the UAE, have indicted and imprisoned activists or journalists for up to two years, usually charging them with subjective and imprecise crimes like insulting the emir or threatening national security. Some citizens in Bahrain and Kuwait have been detained or imprisoned for sending Tweets that the government dislikes or finds inaccurate, usually because the Tweets discuss issues the government prefers to keep quiet (like the court trials of activists or the status of foreign laborers). Some concerns have also been expressed about a draft law to control social media use in Qatar, which has been a courageous leader in promoting institutions that enhance the quality and reach of freedom of expression and critical thinking, through universities, research centers and Al-Jazeera television.

Recent history suggests that states that try to restrict their citizens’ ability to speak their mind peacefully and constructively are fighting a losing battle. The nature of media technologies makes it much easier for individuals and organizations to get around state controls. More importantly, citizens who merely wish to express themselves on issues of concern to them as citizens will react fiercely if their rights to use their human faculties of using and speaking their mind peacefully are denied them by their own government. Freedom of expression and thought are the foundation of two important things that citizens and governments in the Arab world both say they seek: stability and dignity.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global