International expert in the law and freedoms, Yahya Shuqair (Courtesy Photo)


Expert: Some Arab countries regard media outlets as military task forces

The political and armed conflicts that have torn apart several Arab countries are cresting, and efforts are now underway to explain the region’s descent into violence.

In an exclusive interview with Alhurra, an international expert on law and general freedoms, Yahya Shuqair of Jordan, states that autocratic Arab governments’ decades-long suppression of their peoples has created an environment that pulls society toward extremism, especially religious and sectarian extremism.

Following are the main points raised by Shuqair:

  • The Arab countries view the media as a military task force in conflicts.
  • Repression, tyranny and injustice give rise to the violent expression of opinions.
  • The Arab citizen considers the new media a “technology for freedom.”
  • Freedom of expression is fundamental. Any constructive effort that fails to respect the principles of freedom of expression will collapse.
  • The US Supreme Court is a beacon for many courts in the world.

In this exclusive interview, Alhurra discusses with Yahya Shuqair the importance of promoting freedom of opinion and expression and access to information in Arab societies and the effect of these factors on the combating extremism and on development and reform efforts.

Following is the text of the interview:

The Arab region, which has become a major source of news, is replete with political complexities. Where do we begin?

Shuqair: True, the Arab region has been experiencing wars for thousands of years. In every historical period, outside powers have been interested in the Arab region because of its geopolitical position and resources.

But not all of the causes of its suffering are external. There are internal factors that foster tension. Although the region has been endowed with natural resources, the vast majority of the people in the region live in conditions that are slightly above the subsistence level.

Finland, for example, has one-third of the population and one-fifth of the area of Saudi Arabia, yet its gross national income is greater than that of Saudi Arabia. The national income of Egypt at the time of the July 23, 1952 revolution was four times that of South Korea. South Korea’s national income is now 100 times that of Egypt.

I think progress is a process of cumulative development that avoids wasting time in reinventing the wheel.

The advanced countries have reached their level of development based on freedom of expression. Early on, they respected free markets and freedom of opinion and expression. Freedom of expression is one of the two wheels of the bicycle. The second wheel is the free market. Freedom of expression and a free market allow for the creation of a free market of ideas.

In most Arab countries (especially the Gulf States) the free market is excellent, but the wheel of freedom of speech is punctured, so we find it difficult to move the bicycle forward.

Are there any examples of violations of freedom of expression in the Arab world?

Shuqair: Examples of respect for freedom of expression are few and examples of violations are widespread.

For example, according to the World Press Freedom Index of France’s Reporters Without Borders and America’s Freedom House, all of the Arab countries are rated as not being free. The most recent example of unnecessary restrictive laws enacted in the Arab region is the Electronic Crimes Law promulgated by the Palestinian Authority without the involvement of the Palestinian legislative authority, which has been absent or removed since 2006.

This law gives priority to the restriction of freedoms at the expense of the Palestinian draft law on the right of access to information. The draft has been around for 10 years, but, because it supports freedoms, it has yet to be enacted.

The Palestinian Cybercrime Law is the latest example of how the Arab countries deal with the new media, preemptively [restricting it] instead of undertaking positive action to benefit from the fruits of information technology to develop society.

In Mauritania, journalists have complained that the authorities are curtailing press coverage of a referendum on constitutional amendments, although Freedom House rated Mauritania as ‘partly free.’

What criterion can be used to strike a balance between freedom of expression and legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression?

Shuqair: General Comment No. 34 on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which concerns freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, is the most important practical criterion.

This comment was made at the 102nd meeting of the Commission on Human Rights held in July 2011. It replaces a previous general comment, Comment No. 10. I personally participated in the meeting organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Thailand concerning freedom of expression and article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

General Comment No. 34 was drafted by Professor Michael O’Flaherty of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. O’Flaherty was the head of the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham and is the grandson of Irish satirist and poet Oscar Wilde.

Article 34 states, “Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society. The two freedoms are closely related, with freedom of expression providing the vehicle for the exchange and development of opinions.”

But has not information technology created an outlet for people who promote hate speech, violence and terrorism?

Shuqair: Correct. This is an important question. Freedom of expression is not absolute in the world or even in the most democratic countries. International standards of freedom of expression allow for restrictions on freedom of expression to protect public order and even criminalize hate speech and incitement to violence and terrorism.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press and the media should not be platforms for these bad acts and should not be megaphones for advocates of discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, sex, etc.

The stereotyping of others is a prelude to the violation of their rights, and there are examples of such stereotyping in different countries. However, developed countries are making efforts to minimize it.

Look at the stereotypical image which Sunni and Shia extremists have of each other in the Arab region. It is a fundamental cause of the violence and extremism in the region.

A solution can be effective only by creating an infrastructure for access to information and opinions to bring people closer to each other and distance them from ethnic, sectarian, religious and national differences.

What entity can play the greatest role in promoting freedom of expression and tolerance in the Arab world?

Shuqair: A number of entities play roles in promoting freedom of expression as the cornerstone of all other liberties, but I would rely primarily on the constitutional courts.

There are historical examples that highlight the important role played by supreme courts in establishing solid rules for freedom of expression and defensive rights. Chief among these examples is the Supreme Court of the United States, which is first court in the world to examine the constitutionality of a law passed by a legislative authority. Today, the US Supreme Court is a beacon for many courts in the world.

A few days ago, a magistrate’s court in the West Bank city of Nablus issued a ruling to acquit a university professor of the crime of criticizing the Palestinian Authority, citing rulings of the US Supreme Court and the Palestinian Supreme Constitutional Court.

Do you think that the restriction of freedom of opinion and expression pursued by the Arab governments is the cause of the spread of violence we are now seeing?

Shuqair: Historically, oppression, tyranny and injustice have been a powerful spur for expressing one’s opinion. When one cannot find a peaceful way to express his opinion, one expresses his opinion using his muscles.

The Arab countries are no historical exception to this. States have economic, religious and political mechanisms for controlling people. However, matters have gotten out of control, as we have seen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.

Can open societies and governments that encourage access to information nurture a generation that is tolerant of others and believes in the language of dialogue based on freedom of expression for all?

Shuqair: Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1667, Sweden and Finland (then one state) enacted the first code governing access to information. I participated as a speaker at a UNESCO conference in Finland last year commemorating that achievement.

On that occasion, I said that individuals’ access to accurate information helps them make decisions that are more informed than decisions made by people who are denied access to information. Any uninformed person finds it easy to stereotype others.

Thus, many with extreme views toward other persons have changed their views after having an opportunity to talk with those persons.

What is your view of the letter and spirit of Arab constitutions, particularly as Mauritania is now moving towards changing its constitution?

Shuqair: The United States gave the world the greatest document for the sake of the truth and posterity, namely its written constitution. I merited to see the original version of the US Constitution when I was a visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Communication in Philadelphia.

By the way, Philadelphia was one of the ancient names of the Jordanian capital of Amman. An ancient stone pillar excavated near Amman was donated to the University and now graces the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Constitution and Bill of Rights have influenced many constitutions throughout the world, including the Arab constitutions. But the letter of any Constitution remains dead unless it is applied by the courts.

Many of the Arab constitutions are progressive and conform to the general principles of civilized nations. However, the application of their constitutions is not in keeping with their spirit. The Arab constitutions have often been frozen or misinterpreted, becoming a means to exercise control and perhaps legitimize tyranny.

As it is said in English, there is a difference between the rule of law and rule by law. Under the rule of law, the law is applied to everyone. Under rule by law, the law is used to achieve the ruler’s ends. Therefore, we see that the balance always tips toward the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judicial authorities.

In the years of the Arab Spring, progressive amendments were made to the constitutions of Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia relative to the provisions that preceded them.

Do these constitutions protect the Arab citizen’s right to freedom?

Shuqair: Arab constitutions provide for the protection of general fundamental freedoms, but the challenge is to interpret these terse texts. That is why I rely very much on the role of the constitutional courts to expand these rights, even if they are subject to future interpretation.

Laws are formulated for the future and not for the past, but we see that the past exercises a major influence on the formulation and interpretation of Arab constitutions.

What is required of individuals and governments regarding freedoms in order to address hate speech?

Shuqair: Most Arab countries are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 20 of the Covenant states:

  1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
  2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

States have committed to criminalize hate speech which, as history shows, has been a prelude to unlawful violence against anyone who is different.

Hate speech can be heard daily in various Arab countries. It is propagated for religious reasons (Christian/Muslim or Sunni/Shiite) or to justify a sense of ethnic superiority (Arab/Kurdish/Amazigh), male chauvinism or a sense of tribal superiority.

There are examples of woman who are forced to divorce under the pretext of unequal lineage (where the woman is forced to divorce her husband because her tribe believes that his tribe is inferior).

Hate speech is best addressed by the law and then by education at all levels.

How do you view the role of the Arab media in covering conflicts in Arab countries?

Shuqair: Many Arab countries view the media as a military task force in conflict situations. In the latest Arab crisis (the boycott of Qatar), the parties to the conflict were fighting on satellite TV channels, newspapers and social media.

We have seen that anyone who supports or praises the other side is threatened with severe sanctions. Unfortunately, most media outlets are guns for states. Few journalists have the opportunity to be objective let alone neutral.

This story originally appeared on (August 17, 2017)