A distinguished group of experts gathered together at UCLA to discuss the daunting topic, “Is Freedom of Speech Possible in the Arab World”. Participating were Tim Sebastian, chair and moderator of the Doha Debates aired on the BBC worldwide; Asli Bali, Professor of Law at UCLA; David Kaye, Executive Director of the UCLA Law School’s International Human Rights Program; and Steven Spiegel, Director of the sponsoring Center for Middle East Development and Professor of Political Science, UCLA.
In a spirited and dynamic dialogue the four discussed the complex nature of contrasting directions for freedom of speech in today’s Arab world. On the one hand, the new media technology from blogs to twitter to facebook offers new opportunities for Arab citizens to convey their views independently. Media networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabia provide unprecedented outlets for the presentation of opinions that are separate from governments. On the other hand, these new vehicles for expression lead governments to crack down on individuals who seek to use these new opportunities to challenge norms regimes seek to propound.
Vehicles such as the Doha Debates provide students an opportunity to articulate their ideas in ways that have never been tried before. But the end of the Bush administration’s pressure for democratic rights in 2006, followed by the Obama administration’s moving on a similar approach, has led to the truncation of opportunities for Arab citizens to communicate their own perspectives. The Americans have not developed a middle road policy for promoting democracy without challenging their own interests, and their failure in Iraq only exacerbates the dilemma. The Obama administration has simply retreated to the promotion of stability.
The panelists concluded that there are trends and counter trends at work. In a country like Egypt there is more freedom on the blogosphere than in the media; in Kuwait the experiment with democracy has declined. New freedoms and opportunities of expression are not always followed by changes in society. Yet despite several negative trends, most panelists concluded that the new technologies with their varied vehicles for communication were bound to change the nature of discourse in the Arab world, however the results might play out in the nature of governance in the Arab countries in the years ahead.
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