Arab leaders failed to reach an agreement yesterday. Ordinarily, "Arab leaders failed to agree" would merit about as much attention as "it's humid in DC" or "the Brewers' bullpen blew a 7 run lead", or might offer the chance for another chorus of hand-wringing over the failures of Arab unity. But in this case, failure to agree was good: it was Arab Information Ministers failing to agree on the implementation of a controversial document which would have imposed dangerous controls on satellite television. Their failure is a rare bit of good news in the ongoing, difficult struggle for a relatively free and independent Arab media.
The document, drafted and approved in February, represented an intensely controversial bid by Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among others) to impose political controls over satellite television. Annoyed by al-Jazeera and other politically troublesome broadcasters, they proposed a sweeping set of principles which would have in effect internationalized their own domestic systems of censorship and control. While its defenders tried to present it as equivalent to America's FCC, ensuring standards and good taste, few Arab media practitioners or analysts bought the analogy. As Daoud Kuttab put it,
the Arab League members with the exception of Lebanon and Qatar were not innocently trying to ban pornography or violent programming from Arabs’ television screens. Nor is their most recent resolution trying to curtail the content of Arab satellite stations an attempt to create an Arab version of the American FCC. It is no short of an attempt to control the minds and thoughts of Arab viewers, mostly on political issues.
I don't have the time to dig them out right now, but I've got dozens of op-eds and essays in a pile somewhere (some of them tagged over the last few months) of Arab journalists and pundits expressing similar views in sometimes more colorful language. Suffice it to say that many of them took this initiative seriously, and worried that the Arab regimes might be on the brink of snuffing out whatever political independence remained on Arab satellite TV (the parts not already curtailed by the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement or by domestic crackdowns from Egypt to Morocco to Yemen).
That's why it was heartening to read this morning that the Arab Information Ministers failed to reach agreement on the implementation of the document. According to al-Quds al-Arabi, its backers (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria) were surprised by the reservations expressed by Qatar, Lebanon, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Syria. Objections ranged from the political (unacceptable restrictions on political freedom of expression... some, no doubt, felt this more sincerely than others) to the technical (concerns over efforts to establish a common 'dictionary', presumably so that nobody would use the word 'martyrs', that sort of thing) to the economic (the UAE reportedly objected that any censorship authority would hurt business at its media city).
According to unnamed sources from the meeting, the Egyptians and Saudis pushed hard for the power to impose political censorship on all Arab broadcasters, which really would mean regionalizing their draconian censorship and repression. Advocates of media freedoms and democratization should be glad that America's "allies" failed. They won't stop trying, but if al-Quds al-Arabi got the story right then for now it seems like good news.