- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
A meeting of Arab Information Ministers at the Arab League in Cairo yesterday rejected a Congressional resolution calling for sanctions against Arab satellite television stations which allegedly incite terrorism or promote anti-Americanism. It would be pretty pathetic that the Arab League — the Arab League!! — is taking a stronger position in favor of media freedoms than the U.S. Congress. But don’t worry — leading Arab states still seem quite keen to find their own Arab ways to repress and control the media.
The Congressional resolution (H.R.2278), which passed 395-3 in December (and hopefully will die in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) is a perfect example of mindless grandstanding which pleases domestic audiences while hurting American interests in the Arab world.
The resolution complains of anti-American incitement on Arab TV, specifically mentioning Hezbollah’s al-Manar, Hamas’s al-Aqsa, and the Iraqi al-Zawra. It calls for the Obama administration to produce a country-by-country list of Arab TV stations which incite violence and to urge official and private sanctions against those deemed to be carrying out such incitement. Who in the U.S. Congress is going to speak out or vote against complaining about al-Manar or al-Aqsa?
But of course, it’s not so simple. Once the U.S. gets into the business of imposing sanctions against television stations deemed hostile, it’s a very slippery slope. The definition of anti-American incitement is impossibly broad: "The term ‘anti-American incitement to violence’ means the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, advocating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the United States." Almost any critical discussion of American foreign policy on Arab TV could conceivably fit into that definition — and given the realities of Arab views of U.S. foreign policy, any remotely free and independent Arab media will include plenty of such criticism.
Furthermore, H.R. 2278 calls for the U.S. to "designate as Specially Designated Global Terrorists satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists." The list of such SDGT’s is currently some 443 pages long, and includes such Arab political figures as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the influential Islamist figure Yusuf al-Qaradawi [*]. Every serious news organization in the Arab world airs interviews with Meshaal, and Qaradawi is a fixture on al-Jazeera, which is both by far the most popular Arab satellite TV station and was conspicuously not named in the text of H.R. 2278. If simply airing interviews with someone like Meshaal becomes grounds for labeling a TV station a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, then literally almost every single Arab TV station would be so designated — because no serious Arab TV station could cover the news in the region while ignoring Hamas, Hezbollah, or other figures on the list.
In short, H.R. 2278 is a deeply irresponsible bill which sharply contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage. Even Arab governments who despise Hamas and Hezbollah and Qaradawi and al-Jazeera could not sign on to it. Instead, such governments proposed a pan-Arab Media Commission which would monitor and regulate political content on satellite TV — an idea which was floated in spring 2008, and mercifully failed. Fortunately, that proposal has again been shelved. The last thing the Arab world needs right now is more state power of censorship over the media — whether the Arab League over satellite TV or the Jordanian government over the internet. Hillary Clinton just laid out a vision of an America committed to internet freedom, and that should be embraced as part of a broader commitment to free and open media. Nobody should be keen on restoring the power of authoritarian governments over one of the few zones of relative freedom which have evolved over the last decade.
[*] Several friends with experience with such terrorist lists dinged in to clarify that Qaradawi is on an American terrorist exclusion list, but — despite hundreds of internet reports to the contrary — is NOT on the Specially Designated Global Terrorists list. That’s a good thing! But apologies for the confusion, and anybody who links through to this post should note this important correction.