On 19 February 2008, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and the National Monitor for Information and Communication organized a workshop entitled "The Document of the Arab League's Information Ministers: Restricting or Neutralizing Free Media?" Journalists and civil society activists, along with a number of people concerned with freedom of the press, participated in the workshop.
Ramiz Younis, Trainer and Facilitator at Al Mezan, opened the workshop noting that it aimed to raise a discussion on the Document of Principles of Organization of Satellite Transmission in the Arab Region.
This document was approved by the Information Ministers in their Arab League meeting in Cairo on 12 February 2008.
The meeting of the Information Ministers came at the request of Egypt, and it was supported by Saudi Arabia.
The outcome of this meeting was a final non-binding document approved by all Member States of the Arab League - including the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) - except Lebanon and Qatar.
Issam Younis, Director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, and Nasser I'lewa, Director of the National Monitor, spoke at this workshop.
I'lewa pointed out the political and media dimensions of the document's content.
He attributed this document to "deepening the oversight and censorship over the Arab World", thereby, restricting the freedom of the press.
He denounced the hasty adoption by the PNA of this document, describing its position as a "strange siding with the official Arab regime", which is at odds with the Palestine's consistent state of openness and permissiveness towards freedom of expression and free press.
These freedoms were enjoyed especially under the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and then the PNA, where all kinds of issues where put to public scrutiny.
Furthermore, he criticized the lack of vision of those who signed this document on behalf of the PNA.
I'lewa described the document as "a counter attack on Arab achievement of public and press liberties, and the high-level of freedom and access that was reached by some of the Arab satellite channels in particular," pointing out that the document attempts to impose restrictions based on highly vague and generalized notions.
These include community peace, state security, and other vague parameters that "allow states to direct their sword against media" at their will.
At the end of his statement, I'lewa called for advancing solidarity in order to modify this document and ensure it lives up to the wide margins of freedom maintained in Palestinian society, or to "drop it from our culture and civilization".
In his presentation, Mr.
Issam Younis criticized the document, stressing that it contained a serious encroachment on freedom of expression and the flow of information, since it imposes strict restrictions on the freedom of satellite transmission in the Arab region.
He said that the document permits strict censorship of news, dialogue, and even live events broadcasted by satellite stations based on value judgments as wide as "national sovereignty, avoiding influence on society, national unity and public order".
Younis agreed with I'lewa that these criteria are too broad, wondering who can monitor non-Arab satellite channels, such as Al Hurra or the BBC-Arabic, which will be launched soon in the Arab region.
He said that the document inflicts more oppression through restriction of freedoms by the Arab League, stressing that the PNA should have issued reservations against this document and rejected it.
Younis also stressed that a critical assessment of this document must be based on the intended aims behind it.
If regulating the media aims to expand the margin of free expression, it should be commended.
However, the content of the document shows that the case at hand is a form of legalizing censorship and restrictions of freedoms.
He also said that states must protect the media to ensure the enjoyment of every person to freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.
States do not have the right to restrict this right at their will.
Younis then considered some certain concepts and parameters included in the document, such as, among other limitations, the prohibition of offending "national symbols", corrupting morals, or scrutinizing the higher interests of the Arab countries.
These notions are too vague and require interpretation.
He added, inquiring if, for example, it would be illegal to write or speak about a corrupt Minister considering he/she is a national symbol, or if the media would be forbidden from discussing discrimination against women on the grounds that the issue could affect societal peace.
He also wondered if the notion of moral corruption includes sex education.
At the end of Mr.
Younis' presentation, he called for reviewing Arab laws that deal with the organization of the media in a way to ensure protection of the freedom of information of all Arab citizens.
During this workshop, there were several comments and questions made by participants about the content and the consequences of this document.
Participants expressed the need to hold more workshops to discuss the document with media institutions.
They suggested that the content and recommendations of the workshop be sent to the Palestinian Ministry of Information in order for it to amend and develop its position on the document, and contribute to upgrading it on the level of Arab States.