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Satellite broadcasting gag threatens development

Mark Wilson believes the recent clampdown on satellite broadcasters in Arab League countries threatens to damage the wellbeing of millions.

When information ministers from the Arab League met in February, all but one signed a resolution calling on satellite broadcasters: 'Not to offend the leaders or national and religious symbols' of Arab countries, nor 'damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values'.

Going against this resolution could result in closure. Wadeh Khanfar, director-general of news channel Al Jazeera Arabic, called the move the greatest threat to press freedom in the region for a decade.

While the resolution does not have executive power in Arab League member states, Rageh Omaar, former BBC correspondent and now a senior correspondent at Al Jazeera, believes it is indicative of current thinking in the Middle East. He suggests that the states who signed the resolution 'might be testing the water through the Arab League but really they are asking "how can we use technology to control diverse opinions?"'

In Panos London's report, At the heart of change, we set out the belief that development will only be successful where there are open information and communication environments and political cultures in which diverse opinions can be shared and contested.

Our report goes on to say that without these publicly accessible spaces for people to communicate and debate freely, such as through the media, any change will be less coherent and intellectually rigorous, less legitimate and therefore less likely to be successful or sustainable.

Enacting and supporting legislation that establishes freedom of expression and freedom of information is a crucial starting point for governments to create an open and participatory communication environment. This Arab League resolution, I believe, goes directly against this, closing down opportunities for debate – debate that might raise awkward questions and challenge the status quo.

Powerful elites are often afraid of open, untrammelled information, as it can lead to a potential loss of control. When such groups feel under pressure, they constrain information and control debate. This is particularly true in the most highly contested area of all: political power.

Donors, development policymakers and practitioners sometimes appear to ignore or minimise the importance of the political dynamics within a nation state they are supporting. They are reluctant to be seen as 'interfering' in the internal affairs of a country (somehow avoiding the obvious point that this is precisely what external development assistance is).

This has to change. A more sophisticated appreciation of politics must be put at the centre of development approaches, even if it is only to establish a more realistic understanding of what can be achieved. This demands a resolute commitment from development agencies and practitioners to the principles of how healthy, sustainable, equitable development works.

One of these principles must be the recognition of the central importance of open, participatory information and communication environments in which the media can reflect the views of citizens and challenge those in power.

It is therefore dispiriting that so few voices from the donor and development community have joined the staff of Al Jazeera in condemning the Arab League resolution, a resolution that is a potential threat to development and ultimately damaging to the wellbeing of millions of people in the Middle East and Africa.

Mark Wilson is executive director of Panos London 

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Apr 11, 2008

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