DUBAI, March 3 (Reuters) - Outspoken Arab broadcasters said they would not cave in to a charter designed to force them to self-censor their programmes or risk going off air.
The satellite broadcasting charter, endorsed at a meeting of Arab information ministers in Cairo last month, will entrench state control over broadcasts and curtail political expression on the airwaves in a region of some 300 million.
Analysts said the obvious targets of the document, led by U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel and Lebanon’s al-Manar TV owned by the Shi’ite Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla group.
“Media institutions should be watching (the conduct of) governments, not the other way around,” said Ahmad Shaikh, news editor at Al Jazeera, seen as the most popular Arab network.
“These are politicians who want to set the style in which we operate through a wide-ranging document that can have a million interpretations,” said Shaikh, whose network has been banned in Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria.
It blazed to success after going on air in 1996 with its combination of breaking news and fiery anti-government talk shows that have broken many political taboos. It is also well-known for airing messages of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Lebanon’s al-Manar television, which is banned from many Western countries, said the charter had “clear political aims” to serve the interests of Arab regimes.”
“Local courts are responsible for settling any disputes (with the media),” said Mohammad Afif, head of news and political programmes at al-Manar, which became widely viewed in the Arab world during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel and the United States, is locked in a standoff with Lebanon’s Western-backed government.
Only Qatar and Lebanon had publicly opposed the document which allows governments to revoke the licences of broadcasters who air material perceived as undermining “social peace, national unity, public order and propriety”.
It bans channels from airing programmes seen as criticising or defaming political, national or religious leaders.
Analysts say the charter is the governments’ response to the relative freedom enjoyed by broadcasters who encourage open debates of sensitive political issues.
Some said it is also aimed at entertainment channels which air shows that challenge the region’s conservative mores.
“This is a tragedy. They want to send us back to the stone age of official media that only report heads of state receiving and seeing off officials,” Abdul-Bari Atwan, editor of London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned the charter, saying it would extend repression of free speech to airwaves.
Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi al-Aridi said Beirut would stick to its own law and not restrict freedoms.
“The document will not restrict media freedom in Lebanon and I am against anything that touches media freedom anywhere,” he told Reuters, adding that it was non-binding.
One diplomat said Arab governments have laws in place that allow them to close channels and prosecute journalists and the charter would provide “a fig leaf”.
Jazeera’s main rival, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, saw no ill-intention behind the charter but said governments would have been better off asking Arab satellite broadcasters to agree their own code of conduct rather than doing it on a state level.
“We do not see it as a danger to us because we are committed to clear professional ethics,” said Nasser al-Sarami, spokesman of the Dubai-based news channel. (Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Lebanon; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)