Freedom and Projection

According to a recent op-ed on, last February Arab League information ministers outlined new guidelines for Arab satellite channels, specifically prohibiting the broadcasting of negative reporting on heads of state, religious or national figures. It’s very easy for the Western mind to see this as a classic violation of freedom of speech, and even in my most relativist moments I find it difficult to argue that such restrictions are good for the health of a society. However, Palestinian columnist Ramzy Baroud argues that this interpretation misses what is actually occurring in the Arab world, because freedom of the press never existed in the first place:

What is painted to look like a classic conflict between corrupt governments and their fed-up constituencies, the former laboring to gag the latter’s freedom of expression, is a lot more convoluted. It is not that the corrupt elites are not indeed laboring to suppress dissent, or that the suppressed multitudes are not fiercely fighting back. In fact, it’s this relationship that constitutes the push and pull that came to define Arab media in the first place. But who has decided that Arab satellite stations—or other pan Arab media—represent the interests of Arab masses, or have improved in any measurable way the welfare of Arab people, especially the poorer, discounted classes?

The problem, he says, is that Arab media has never actually been even marginally free of “political, religious, nationalistic, even tribal leanings, affiliations, and priorities.” While there are now over 500 satellite channels and scores of glossy magazines, content does not equal quality. Licenses are generally available only to those with connections, and only on certain conditions. Arab media is thus enormously constrained in the topics it can critique. Obviously other countries have similar problems, but image if every channel was Fox News. The situation is further complicated by the existence of long-standing inter-Arab rivalries. Not only can you not talk abut your own government, but talking about your neighbor’s government might be an equally politically charged act.

In this context, Baroud suggests an alternate interpretation of the recent “guidelines”:

The Arab foreign ministers communiqué can be understood as a call for a truce between various Arab governments: you hold your journalists back from attacking me, I’ll hold mine. It’s neither a call for the suppression of civil society nor the gagging of free expression: the former is largely suppressed and truly free expression never fully existed.

I find this interpretation fascinating, and I also take this as a caution against being too quick to project Western systems onto alien cultures. It’s not that we should not support the classic Western values of freedom, individual human rights, governance in the public interest, etc., but that our understandings of the practicalities of such issues are based solely on experience within our our nations and societies. To take another exmaple, I have already written about how most Chinese seem to support government control of the internet; this might seem very strange to us, but this is an ancient nation of a billion people, deeply fearful of mass disorder. The Chinese, the Arabs, the Africans, and everyone else are not us, and cannot be understood by thinking like us.

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