Archive for May, 2009

Egypt bans porn sites

Yesterday’s decision by one of Egypt’s highest courts to ban porn sites is yet another example of the government’s losing battle to control the thoughts and actions of its people. arabicporn

The Administrative Court, based in Cairo, has ordered the government to block the sites in response to a case brought by Muslim lawyer Nizar Ghorab, who filed the case under his own initiative.

He welcomed the decision today, saying: “Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately.”

Arguing in court, Ghorab cited the case of a senior civil servant and his wife who were arrested last year for holding “swinger” parties after soliciting other parties over the internet.

Although the decision can be appealed to a higher court, Ghorab believes that this is unlikely as it would put the government in the uncomfortable position of being seen to protect pornography.

“Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism,” the AFP news agency quoted the court as saying in its ruling.

Freedom of speech has long been under fire in Egypt. The country has been held in a state of perpetual emergency rule since President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party came to power in 1981. An estimated 18,000 people are in prison under Egyptian law, which allows police to arrest people without charge, while media organisations are kept firmly under the yoke of state control.

This curtailment of civil freedoms on the street has led many young Egyptians to turn to the virtual highway. According to government figures from 2007, Egypt has around 12m internet users, one in nine of the country’s population, making it the largest online presence of all the Arab nations.

080729%20egyptNine per cent of this – around 800,000 people – use the social networking site Facebook, which has become a powerful voice for the country’s youthful population. Epitomised in the April 6 Youth Movement, a political group created during last year’s protests which now has more than 700,000 members, social networks are taking on a political face.

Within hours of the first bombings of Gaza by Israel in January, around 2,000 people had organised a n ad hoc demonstration using Facebook and taken to the streets, many of them voicing their anger at their own government for what they saw as collusion with Israel.

In this light, the Egyptian court’s ruling to try to censor the internet is a cynical and hollow attempt to extend its waning power to the untapped domain of the internet. Pornography may often typify the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable and expolited, yet it also represents  the power of freedom of expression in the face of moral censure from mainstream society.

Love it or loathe it, porn is a barometer to a country’s politics. And the more the Egyptian government tries to restrict the freedoms of its people in the name of “religion, morality and patriotism,” the closer it will come to its own demise.

World Press Freedom Day: a eulogy to international journalism?

Yesterday a group of students from Northwestern University joined a worldwide huger strike in support of the Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran for espionage.

roxana_saberiSaberi’s plight has brought world-wide condemnation of the Iranian government, after she was sentenced to eight years in prison in a closed trial that lasted only one hour. A reported 225 people have signed up to the “Free Roxana” campaign, after the Northwestern graduate started her own hunger strike in protest on April 21.

“The main point is to create awareness about the situation Roxana is facing and what many people are facing in Iran,” said student David Caratelli.

Saberi’s story is the latest example of how journalists around the globe are being persecuted for their profession. Fittingly, yesterday also marked World Press Freedom Day, instituted in 1997 by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the past year, 60 journalists and media workers have been killed, 29 kidnapped and more than 900 attacked around the world. “Journalists been killed while trying to lift the veil of secrecy that governments seek to wrap around their military actions”, said Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

Speaking at a debate at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, he argued against the motion “Governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media”.

“The war on terror has been accompanied by a war just civil liberties and independent journalism,” he said, citing numerous instances of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan facing persecution. But despite the actions of repressive governments the world over, he argued that “the voices of those suffering are given life by journalists”.

Yet his point was hotly contested. Andrew Gilligan, the controversial Evening Standard columnist, argued against the motion, claiming that war correspondents today are so desperate for stories that they latch on to anything that they would normally dismiss as rumour or government spin.

He said: “The real problem for reporting on combat situations and the reason that so many stories from Iraq were wrong is simply this: wars create a sellers market in news”. Citing the practice of embedding journalists with troops in combat situations, he said that war creates a “sellers market” for news where journalists routinely succumb to a pervasive form of self-censorship.

“Even the most independent-minded journalist in the world is not disposed to write unkind things about somebody in that situation. No one needs to threaten or be threatened,” he said.

His co-speaker James Shea, Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General NATO, also countered the argument that web 2.0 technology is undermining government control of information.

“These days, everybody can be a reporter on reality”

“And if the profession has been democratised, why can’t the government also therefore enter the profession as a reporter on its own activity?”

He cited new NATO TV channels and the use of articles by eminent ‘experts’ in papers as examples of how the government is bypassing the media to get its message across and winning the war of words that has grown out of the war on terror.

Yet the most compelling of all the speakers was and Alan Fisher, a London correspondent from Al Jazeera who has reported from aljazeera1war zones around the world, most recently during Georgia’s war with Russia in August of last year. 

Descrying the debate’s Western-centric view on the success of the media, he said:

“People tend to think that if a tree falls in the forest, and an American broadcast network isn’t there to record it, did it really fall?”

Discussing the coverage of the war in Gaza, which prompted the theme of the debate, he said that Al Jazeera had been the only channel able to give full coverage of the bombings because it was prepared to tap the vast resources of local journalists already living on the strip, unlike many outlets which relied almost exclusively on Israeli news reports.

He also argued that the proliferation of international news outlets meant there are “more ways of accessing the truth” that ever before, creating a more varied and exciting perspective on international events. He said:

“We challenge authority more than ever before an we continue to and that is why the government cannot win.”


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