A new survey by the non-partisan group, Freedom House, says there were significant declines last year in the state of press freedom around the world. The report notes that the Arab world still suffers from the lowest levels of media freedom worldwide. Some analysts contend that's evidence that Islam is incompatible with Western ideals of free speech and free thought. But others claim it is the repressive regimes in Arab and Muslim countries, not Islam, which are to blame for the region's dearth of press freedom. Rob Sivak presents this report by VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi.
The 2008 Freedom House survey indicates there actually were some small improvements in press freedom in the Middle East-North Africa region, but not because the governments there were interested in nurturing a free press. It was due instead, the survey finds, to the growing numbers of Arab journalists who are willing to challenge government restraints on the press – especially in Egypt.
Still, the Freedom House survey shows that of the 17 Arab states and Iran in the Middle East-North Africa region, 15 countries fit the description of being not free, and – by Freedom House standards – only three (Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt) are considered to be partly free.
Does the fact that the region is predominantly Muslim have anything to do with this dearth of press freedom? Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, founder and president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, says that's a legitimate question. "I think looking at the news and looking at the report, certainly people can ask that question: 'Is Islam the problem? Is Islam a religion that maybe does not encourage freedom of the press or freedom of expression?'"
His answer: no. "I definitely would argue that it's the governments [which are to blame]. If you look at the large Muslim countries with large majorities of Muslims, most of them are not Islamic countries. They are secular states and in fact they tend to be the most oppressive states."
But other analysts disagree, noting that many Islamic leaders have a limited view of press freedom and free speech, a view that does not tolerate religious blasphemy. The problem with this limitation, they say, is deciding who defines what expression is blasphemy and what is not.
Christopher Walker, Director of Studies at Freedom House, says there are big differences between the press freedoms enjoyed in the West and the degree of press freedom Islamic leaders might be willing to tolerate. "It goes without saying that in a more developed, thoughtful, grounded and civil society, civic education is indispensable. [That] includes principles of tolerance and thoughtfulness."
He recalls the famous case last year involving the publication of some Danish cartoons that satirically depicted the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. "I think ultimately you're looking for peaceful debate and dialogue on these questions and not impugning the motives or immediately asserting the right to violence on many of these questions, which you see emerging in certain settings, and which may be a function of political immaturity; it may be a function of other dimensions of the political landscape."
There is also a difference between the religious teachings of Islam – which preach tolerance – and what is actually being practiced nowadays in many Islamic countries, according to Raswan Masmoudi. He points to Islamic history. "You see many, many cases of blasphemy not being punished and in fact, being engaged in dialogue. At the time of the Prophet, at the time when he was still alive, somebody wrote a poem insulting the Prophet and hung it on the house of God, the house of worship. And the companions of the Prophet were furious and wanted to tear it down and the Prophet said 'No, leave it' and put verses of the Koran and put it next to the poem for people to read. You know, this is what they say about me, this is what I say about myself or who God is – and let people judge."
Masmoudi says frequent attacks on Islam in the Western media have bolstered radicals' arguments that the West has targeted Islam for centuries and contributed to its historic decline. That decline, Masmoudi believes, also resulted in a loss of intellectual freedom, as Muslim clerics tried to preserve the faith by cracking down on dissidents and promoting strict adherence to dogma. But the Islamic scholar says there is a rising political tide in Arab and Muslim countries today, calling for democracy with Islamic values.
Freedom House's Chris Walker says modern information technology is also creating new opportunities for freedom of expression within the Arab world. "In a country like Egypt – and it is probably also the case in a country like Saudi Arabia – authorities in those countries have made conscious decisions to enable the Internet as a practical matter, in terms of infrastructure. That's in part for economic reasons. Once you do that and you reach a critical mass of usage – that is to say, people becoming acculturated, accustomed to using the technology, accessing new information – that in practice allows you to leapfrog state-controlled media and other sorts of media that are easily manipulated or managed by either the authorities or powerful interest [groups]."
He says individuals and courageous journalists are exploiting that new opportunity.
Walker says Freedom House studies have shown that new forms of information media, such as satellite television, Internet-based newspapers, journalist blogs and social-networking websites have become important tools of free expression. And journalists in Arab countries, Walker adds, are increasingly able and willing to use these new tools to speak their minds more freely, and to push the envelope of press freedom throughout the Arab world.