Attempts to control regional media will fuel radicalisation

When state-sponsored limits undermine media professionals' free engagement with their communities, there is good reason for concern.

Ever since the advent of satellite television and the world wide web, Arab media outlets have always found themselves embroiled in national and global controversies. But in the past few weeks in particular, tensions within many private media organisations have reached record levels in the face of what they see as ominous regional and global regulatory regimes. What is so intriguing is that those pressures come not only from within the region, but from places as far away as the US Capitol.

A recent bill passed by the US Congress imposes sanctions on Middle East satellite companies that are broadcasting channels deemed hostile to the United States. Last week Arab information ministers deliberated about setting up a joint media commission. Neither development has offered any comfort to the region's non-state media. The very idea of the US Congress defining how media in other countries ought to behave is confusing simply because it defeats the principle of the free flow of information that the US champions. Just think of the recent US reaction to China's harassment of Google and you realise how central media freedom is in the US policy agenda.

In this region, the idea of an Arab League media commission is a grim reminder of the 2008 Satellite Television Charter, and is widely believed to resurrect governments' ambitions to restrict the media. Of course, recent developments show that some media, especially satellite television channels, have played an awful role in fomenting national, sectarian and inter-Arab divisions, as well as in promoting anti-western views about politics and culture. But I believe tackling those transgressions through sanctions and censorship may only contribute to further radicalisation in the region's expanding public sphere.

In many ways, the congressional bill calling for sanctions against television networks "seen as fuelling anti-American hatred" seems out of sync with the US president Barack Obama's previous gestures of openness to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Should the bill be translated into law (which I hope will not happen), I expect the credibility of America's public diplomacy in the Middle East will be most adversely affected. A move of this calibre carries the risk that other countries might reciprocate against American media outlets that are believed to be promoting Islamophobia and anti-Arab viewpoints, as the Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa has pointed out.

It is perplexing to see this type of move, which was never raised by the more conservative Congress during the former Bush administration. In fact, that administration was wise enough to shape this region's public opinion not by closing down hostile media outlets, but by launching credible broadcast operations like Alhurra Television Channel and Radio Sawa. It is through such constructive engagement in the region's public sphere, rather than through sanctions and suppression, that the goals of US diplomacy would be better served.

The idea of an Arab League Media Commission, dating back to mid-2009, has little to do with the controversial US bill. But fears that this new body will turn into a draconian machine of censorship seem too difficult to dispel. Advocates of the proposal believe it would empower Arab media by encouraging professional development and the media's global role. From my thorough reading of the proposal, I personally do not see any evil intentions embedded in the document. But the euphemisms in the text gives rise to multiple interpretations, especially when it comes to implementation. Some cynics like me believe the commission will breathe new life into the defunct 2008 Satellite Television Charter.

Because the commission focuses on government associations, its regulatory function would be complicated by the different policies of the Arab League members. The poor representation of private media in the commission's structure conveys the impression that their future roles would be more as followers rather than formulators of future regulatory regimes. Inarguably, governments have vested interests in keeping media closely aligned with their policies and orientation at home and abroad. But when state-sponsored limits undermine media professionals' free engagement with their communities, there is good reason for concern. Historical experience has taught us that societies progress towards their ambitions only through the free marketplace of ideas in which the best and the brightest are more likely to survive.

It is the public rather than government officials who should have the final say on what to watch, read and listen to. Media regulation is a healthy condition for a prosperous public sphere and its absence would lead to chaos. But if we are looking for pluralistic communication among diverse players, it is not only the state that should define the regulatory agenda, but also non-state media professionals and the public. It is here that I see the promise of media self-regulation making the big difference.

Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah