Iraqi media ban and sectarianism

Paul Mutter writes in:

I have a piece at Tech President about the Iraqi government's decision to suspend the broadcasting licenses for 10 channels in the country following what is now two weeks of sectarian violence concentrated in and around Baghdad. One of the networks was Al Jazeera, but except for a single Kuwaiti channel that is meant to appeal to Shia Iraqis, the rest were either based in Iraq or owned by Iraqi expatriates, and are regarded by their critics as anti-government, pro-Sunni and, for some, pro-Baathist:

The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad”. This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Wamith gave me a lot of helpful context about the relationship between particular domestic channels and the government, plus the general state of press freedom in his country. The actions Maliki et al. took this past week against the networks shows just how deeply non-Sunni establishments have come to distrust the politics of the "Sunni media" these days - think of Al Jazeera Arabic's reception in Egypt and Syria nowadays. But, there is a lot of debate that is particular to Iraq's volatile coalition politics and general war-weariness, as I note that when "people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties."

Read the whole article here.

Censorship in the UAE

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about the abrupt cancellation of an academic conference on the Arab Spring.

The London School of Economics and Political Science abruptly canceled an academic conference on the Arab Spring it planned to hold over the weekend at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom."

The last-minute cancellation took place after Emirati authorities requested that a presentation on the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain—where a protest movement was harshly repressed with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—be dropped from the program.

The paper was to be given by a professor who the Emirati authorities say has "consistenly propagated views deligitimizing the Bahraini monarchy" (and who has written critically about political repression in the UAE).

Here's London School of Economics professor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen's own account. 

Once we kissed

It took me almost a year to collect this rare footage from Arab films between the 20's and the 60's. With the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism after the Arab Spring in 2011, extremists have been calling for a rupture with the past and censorship of our heritage. This is a reminder of who we used to be, and that one day we were capable of showing love rather than condemning it...

Inspired by Giuseppe Tornatore's "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso" scene finale.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TflvNm22cpk

Music by Ennio Morricone


A wonderful video in the context of calls for strict censorship in state television and cinema in Egypt. More generally speaking, some of these kissing scenes from the 1940s-60s are more passionate than many scenes of the last 20 years.

[Thanks, KK.]

The social media batteground in the Gulf

 On the one hand, it's deeply worrying that the government is seeking to create a surveillance culture that encompasses spying on all digital media.

On the other, that same government would struggle to arrange a children's party if provided with a clown, a bouncy castle, some children and an unlimited supply of jelly.

The satirist Daily Mash on new British online surveillance laws 

Hamza KashgariOn the one hand, a Wahhabi fatwa against Twitter. On the other, a princely stake from an Al Saud in the platform.

And on the other other hand, a growing campaign across the region to censor - and censure - dissent from social media users that is no laughing matter.

Social media is certainty shaking up the Kingdom. Hamza Kashgari was arrested for "blasphemous" tweets - his supporters now assert that so desperate were the Saudi authorities to make an example of him to score points, they pressured Malaysian officials into arresting and extraditing him while he was traveling around Malaysia, and then lying about this by claiming they had detained him at an airport.

In addition to the aforementioned fatwa, at least three Saudi journalists have been arrested and detained for their role in participating in or covering Shia demonstrations in the eastern part of the country. As Toby C. Jones noted, the Shia demonizing campaign of spring 2011 had as much to do with fear of losing influence in Bahrain - and perhaps more so - as it did with fear of having to make concessions to the country's Shia citizens and rein in the Wahhabi establishment:

In Saudi Arabia, in dozens of places, hundreds of protesters routinely assembled, calling for relatively minor concessions, including greater religious tolerance and the release of Shiite political prisoners. But confronted by the sweeping changes underway across the region, officials claimed that the protests at home and especially in Bahrain, if they were allowed to succeed, would lead to a catastrophe - a democratic state next door controlled by a Shiite majority, one they insisted would take marching orders from Tehran.

Given the heavy-handedness of the Saudi authorities, online anonymity is a safer way to organize than congregating in a town square. But the net is heavily monitored nonetheless, and stepping out into the sun rarely ends well. "March 11—the intended Day of Rage—came and went without mass protest," Madawi Al-Rasheed wrote last month, and in the process of turnout and crackdown, at least one Saudi YouTuber was disappeared by the authorities.

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The BBC censors the word "Palestine"

This press release from the Palestine Campaign beggars belief...

PRESS RELEASE
for immediate release: 31st January 2012 *
*BBC Trust rules in favour of censoring ‘Palestine’

The BBC has admitted it was ‘overcautious’ in editing the word ‘Palestine’ from an artist’s performance on Radio 1Xtra and has said it is ‘looking to learn’ from the way it handled the situation.

However, in a ruling released today (31/01/12), the BBC Trust said the final content that was broadcast on the Charlie Sloth Hip Hop M1X – a music programme – was not biased and therefore did not breach its editorial guidelines.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has spent eight months trying to find out why the decision was made to censor the lyrics of a freestyle performance by the rapper, Mic Righteous. Appearing on the Charlie Sloth show in February 2011, he sang: ‘I can scream Free Palestine for my beliefs’.

BBC producers replaced the word ‘Palestine’ with the sound of breaking glass, and the censored performance was repeated in April on the same show.

Amena Saleem, of PSC, said: ‘In its correspondence with us, the BBC said the word Palestine isn’t offensive, but ‘implying that it is not free is the contentious issue’, and this is why the edit was made.

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Egypt and censorship

Khaled Dawoud reports on artists' concerns in Egypt:

The main conference hall at the Press Syndicate was packed with nearly all the big names in the Egyptian art and culture industry. Actors and actresses, poets, painters, musicians, novelists and writers all gathered on Saturday to announce the creation of the "Egyptian Creativity Front" to face what they see is growing pressure to limit freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt following the landslide victory political Islamic groups scored in parliamentary elections that concluded last week.

Where have these people been all this time? The Mubarak regime practised censorship – political, cultural, and other – widely. Often the reasons were Egypt's terrible legislation and bureaucracy of censorship, which is very politically malleable. No doubt an Islamist government may enforce some forms of censorship more (and others less).

I'm very glad people are organizing to protect freedom of expression and the wave of creativity of the last few years (culminating in the 18 days of Tahrir). But taking the position that the Islamists are the problem is the wrong approach, it's the legislation and the mentality of a ministry of culture that seeks to micro-manage cultural life that's the real problem.

One more thing: I am willing to bet any taker that, within a year, even if the situation for political or human rights really improves, we'll see some people writing of an Islamist winter in Egypt because they've banned a movie or something, and we'll have no mention that under the Mubarak regime courts for instance banned the reprinting of the Arabian Nights because it was considered too lewd.

Better distribution can defeat censorship

There is a good piece by Muhammad Khawly on film censorship up at al-Akhbar:

Cairo – “Early in the game, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown their true colors,” wrote art and cinema supporters on social networking sites in Egypt.

This statement and others like it were made in response to the authorities’ decision to withdraw the movie Wahed Sahih (A whole one) from Egyptian theaters.

“The Egyptian Board of Censors has said they intend to reevaluate the movie in order to delete some scenes and remove language that “deviates from public morality,” according to Sayed Khattab, the head of the board.

Khattab said that he plans to “form a committee to watch the movie a second time, a week after its release...because I received angry feedback on the expressions uttered by actress Basma [Hassan] in the movie.”

Of course the fact that Islamists are on the rise makes many worried about moral censorship. But that is only part of the picture. First of all, under Mubarak, censorship was widespread and often religiously-motivated. At least there will be (once military censorship is removed from the media) much less political censorship, hopefully, in the future of Egypt. That moral censorship — against irreverent treatment of religious matters, sexuality or foul language — will remain is actually largely more of the same, even if you had occasional waves of relative tolerance (often followed by a hardline to outflank conservatives) on this issue.  

To me, censorship is only a small part of the problem, and one that has a relatively obvious solution: better distribution. Lack of good distribution channels seems to me a bigger problem than censorship. It's virtually impossible to buy many movies — new or old — in Egypt because they do not exist on DVD and there are few online sources of digital media (particularly legal ones that could remunerate the film's creators). Movies are screened in theaters and then can often disappear forever. 

Digital distribution in particular could be one way to circumvent censorship, by creating a censored version and an "uncut" one available online (and thus circumventing national-level censorship). Even if it will then be accessible to a sub-section of the population initially, at least it will be out there. I cannot count the number of times I was frustrated by wanting to obtain (and pay for) a copy of a film I missed in the theaters. At least, it would be a good insurance policy against the ongoing battle with state censors.

Links for 07.22.09 to 07.23.09

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