Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have long sought to keep a lid on free speech – especially the sort that might be perceived as a threat to the established order. Before the arrival of satellite television and the internet this was relatively easy to do.
Within their own borders broadcasting was in the hands of the state and the authorities were generally able to keep control of the printed word and what could be seen in cinemas. Of course, the more determined citizens could listen to foreign radio stations and books could be smuggled in, but these were relatively minor holes in the system.
That began to change in the 1990s with the development of satellite TV channels broadcasting in Arabic, and even more so as use of the internet spread. Nowadays, although the authorities' desire for control may seem undiminished, they are often less able to exercise it.
Direct censorship is the most obvious means of control but in practice its use has been rather limited. Historically, it has usually been applied to material entering Arab countries from abroad, restricting the import of books, newspapers and magazines, and sometimes even music CDs as well. This proved a very labour-intensive activity. In Saudi Arabia, for example, offending material in foreign newspapers – such as advertisements for alcohol or pictures of “inappropriately” dressed women – would be obliterated with marker pens, or entire pages would be removed. The process would be repeated, by hand, for every copy of the paper entering the country.
To varying degrees, some Arab governments also try to censor the internet by blocking access to websites they consider "unsuitable". Among the Arab states, Saudi Arabia is generally considered to have the most elaborate system for internet censorship.
Censorship is a crude tool, however. Since it tends to be noticed it is not good for the image of those who do the censoring and often has the unintended effect of drawing more attention to whatever is being censored. More sophisticated methods can generally achieve the desired ends.
One very common method is to require newpapers, magazines, book publishers, printers and, in some countries even individual journalists, to obtain a licence from the government – a system which also reflects the fondness of creating obstructive bureaucracy. Similar licensing rules often apply to NGOs and other civil society organisations.
The main point of this is that it puts pressure on publishers to behave "responsibly", for fear of losing their licence (and possibly their business too) if they upset the authorities.
In their constitutions, most Arab countries pay some lip service to freedom of speech – with the rider that it is permitted "within the limits of the law". Although many countries limit freedom of speech in certain circumstances (incitement to violence, for example) the laws in Arab countries tend to be far more sweeping and their vagueness opens the door to arbitrary interpretations.
Examples include laws against "insulting" rulers and government officials, "defaming" religion and "spreading false news". The penalties can often be severe.
One important effect of this is to create uncertainty about what may or may not be lawfully said. It intimidates people and leads to self-censorship.
The problems faced by Arab newspapers are discussed in more detail on a separate page.
Committee to Protect Journalists
An independent organisation based in New York which promotes press freedom worldwide "by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal". See Middle East overview.
Reporters Without Borders
(Reporters Sans Frontières) A French-based organisation. See Middle East section of its website..
International Press Institute
"Dedicated to the furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism". For Middle East, see "countries" section of its website.
A human rights organisation "with a specific mandate and focus on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide". Its name refers to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. See Middle East section of its website.
Index on Censorship
A journal which records abuses of free expression worldwide and has become "one of the world's leading repositories of original, challenging, controversial and intelligent writing on free expression issues".
Human Rights Watch
A general human rights organisation which also addresses freedom of expression issues. See Press Freedom section of its website.