free speech

How can organizations spread press freedom better?

Here are my slides for my presentation today at the Arab Human Rights conference in Doha, Qatar:

My main points:

  1. Need to focus on judicial rulings and get good ones translated/disseminated.
  2. Need to focus on international approaches — don’t just report that a journalist was arrested, explain how that violates her ability to her job and how other countries protect journalists.
  3. Need for transparency when reporting on free press violations. Who is the judge? The prosecutor? Don’t let them hide behind anonymity.
  4. Focus on penal codes, not just media laws. The two rulings in Africa overturned bad penal code law (criminal defamation and “false news”), not bad media law.

 

I really stressed the recent ruling from the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights that outlawed criminal defamation. The high court ruled that putting a journalist in jail is incompatible with human rights.

Here’s a link about the court ruling. And here’s a link to theKonate vs. Burkina Faso ruling itself. And here’s a link to the Media Legal Defense Initiative, the NGO that provided defense for the journalist in Burkina Faso who had the temerity to report on the corruption of a public official.

This African court ruling is a landmark decision for this part of the world. I’m working on creating an organization that translates legal rulings like this one for dissemination to Arabic-speaking judges, lawyers, prosecutors and journalists in the Middle East. Contact me if you’d like to help.

Finally, since you’re here, please take a look at my research: Arab Media Laws: Identifying restraints on freedom of the press in the Gulf countries. Here’s an earlier version that was translated into Arabic: قوانين الإعلام العربية: تحديد القيود على حرية الصحافة في دول الخليج.

By | March 23rd, 2015|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Blackstone on the nature of the free press

Here’s what Sir William Blackstone said about the free press in 1769.

The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state: but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.

Sometimes we forget that a “free press” does operate with some limits. But those limits are narrowly drawn and a premium is placed upon political speech.

By | August 26th, 2013|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Despite Arab Spring, ‘culture of repression’ continues to undermine press freedoms in Middle East

Anyone looking for an overall picture of freedom of expression and the press since the Arab Awakening that started in 2011 may want to read my recent article published in Jadaliyya. The analysis examines the moves taken in Arab countries since the unrest around the region–particularly the legal actions taken by governments. The result is rather depressing, particularly from the countries that haven’t yet seen any political change.

Most of these countries use the following legal methods to intimidate journalists and social media activists: Criminal defamation, “insult the ruler” charges, laws against “false communication,” censorship to protect public order, and the licensing of journalists.  Years of government intimidation have created a “culture of repression.” Here’s the section about this issue:

But, perhaps the biggest limitation to Arab journalism (and, again, forgive me for speaking in generalities) is the effect of years of repression on the profession. Many journalists simply accept that they cannot do their jobs properly and have acquiesced to the situation. Others, who have been elevated to positions of authority in Arab newsrooms, have become adept at censoring the journalists under them. In countless discussions with journalists in the Arab world, I’ve heard that editors often do the jobs of government officials by killing the stories they sense may cause trouble.

In his book, “The New Arab Journalist,” Lawrence Pintak reveals many examples of self-censorship in the Arab world. An editor for a Saudi paper says “we know our limits and in a way practice self-censorship. There have been troubles when red lines have been crossed.” And an Egyptian reporter working for an Emirates newspaper said he had asked himself “two or three times what will be the reaction” before publishing an article. Another Gulf editor said it plainly: “Our press is infected with the self-censorship virus.”

The effect of this self-censorship is depressing. Perhaps some of the troubles of the Arab Spring—unemployment, government corruption, and stagnant economic growth—could have been addressed if the news media weren’t beaten down by government harassment. But, these issues were ignored by a timid Arab press and allowed to fester. Despite the proliferation of media outlets in some of these countries, the overwhelming stance is for the media to continue to tow the government line. One newspaper that challenged the status quo in Egypt, the Egypt Independent, sadly shut down earlier this year because it couldn’t stay afloat financially.

These broad criticisms refer to the local press in each country and how they cover their own government and business interests. Many press outlets provide laudable coverage of situations in neighboring countries. For example, The National in the United Arab Emirates closely covers arrests in Kuwait, Oman, and other Arab countries over freedom of speech issues. However, when reporting on arrests in its own country, the paper defers to government statements or muted trial coverage.

Fed up with the old media outlets that self-censor at home, many residents have turned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to give and receive impartial and unfiltered information. The result was an explosion throughout much of the Arab world. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen have all seen their long-time autocratic rulers depart. The state-aligned local media could not protect them. And those countries that haven’t yet seen a change in leadership are worried about their future and keen to stop social media from evolving into a space for free expression. All of the Arab sheikdoms have made arrests for speech on Twitter—sending an important signal the people that they expect boundaries to be respected. Kuwait has arrested dozens of people on “insulting the Emir” charges, while the UAE has arrested scores of residents (mostly over what they said on social media platforms) and ultimately charged them with sedition. Even in Qatar–which hosts the Al Jazeera and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom–convicted a poet and sentenced him to 15 years in prison because of a poem in which he said that all Arabs lived under similar free speech conditions as pre-revolution Tunisians.

Please read the rest of the article–it includes a slew of hyperlinks to my sources.

By | June 19th, 2013|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Kudos to local Atlanta press for fighting judge’s gag order

The judge in the trial of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal case just lifted the gag order that had prohibited defendants from talking to the press. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

(Superior Court Judge Jerry) Baxter granted a motion jointly filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News seeking to remove gag orders on the APS defendants that were made a part of their bonds. The orders restricted the administrators and educators from talking to the media and public about the case.

Tom Clyde, a lawyer for the AJC and WSB-TV, said “a core part of being an American citizen” is a defendant’s right to profess his or her innocence.

Quinn countered that the defendants agreed to the condition in exchange for getting their bonds reduced. “This was something they did knowingly and voluntarily,” he said.

Baxter disagreed.

So, the judge asked, they could either post bonds of several million dollars or agree not to talk about the case?

“I’m striking that,” he said.

The gag order limited the press from covering the story fairly by giving prosecutors a monopoly on access to reporters.

Gag orders are considered a form of “prior restraint” — a serious abridgment of freedom of the press. However, they aren’t necessarily viewed as unconstitutional since the U.S. Constitution guarantees both a right to a free press as well as a right to a fair trial.

The Supreme Court generally holds that gag orders must directly lead to a more fair trial for defendants in order to uphold any restrictions on press coverage.

Given that standard, it’s hard to see how the gag order in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case would lead to a more fair trial for the defendants.

The AJC and WSB deserve praise for paying their lawyers to fight the gag order. They are owned by the same company, Cox Communications — a reminder that bigger isn’t always badder when it comes to media outlets.

By | May 4th, 2013|AJC|0 Comments

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf on Islam, freedom of speech and global communication


This is a great talk from American Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf on issues surrounding global communication and Islam. He spoke after the YouTube video portraying the Prophet Mohammed caused so much offense in the Muslim world last year.

He makes some great points. First, he describes how Islamic scholars sometimes limit freedom of speech by labeling anything they disagree with as an insult to the prophet. He mentioned his own experience in which Islamic scholars said he needed to make public repentance for defending someone who had insulted the prophet. Yusuf said:

That certainly wasn’t my intention. But, I was pointing out a nuance. Well, we’re living in a world where nuance is no longer in our vocabularies. We are in the cartoon world of black and white. It’s not even color cartoons.

Fantastic point that could apply to some Islamic scholars as well as many segments of American society. In my opinion, Islamophobia and Islamic extremism are essentially two sides of the same coin.

He then goes on to discuss freedom of speech with some nuance. Yusuf discusses Holocaust denial laws, the confusion between the support for free speech vs. support for the specific speech, and the shifting perspectives on protection of reputation. Give it a listen.

By | April 29th, 2013|Uncategorized|0 Comments