You won't get to read this

You won't get to read this
Comment: This website has been banned in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Vijay Prashad asks: What are they scared of?
6 min read
08 Jan, 2016
Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt have blocked The New Arab website

In memory of Nasser al-Said

If you live in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, you will not get to read this commentary.

These three governments - in three-way tandem - decided to block this website. They offered no explanation for their decision.

All this happened within ten days. Saudi Arabia took the lead on December 21, UAE followed on December 29 and Egypt brought in the rearguard on December 31.

It appears, therefore, that the three governments acted in unison.

Close collaboration between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt has begun to define the region over the past few years. Saudi Arabia had feared the outcome of the Tahrir Revolution. The post-Mubarak regime allowed an Iranian warship to transit the Suez Canal and President Mohammad Morsi visited Tehran - both firsts since 1979.

Saudi Arabia and its allies found this intolerable, given their immense allergy to all things Iranian. When General Sisi overthrew the Morsi government, he was backed diplomatically and financially by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Press and cultural freedom have suffered greatly in Egypt, where the tone began to match the suffocation of Saudi Arabia. A new axis developed that ran from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi and Cairo. This is the grouping that the United States calls "moderate".

Such moderation has come with complete intolerance for press and cultural freedom. Egypt has jailed not only large numbers of journalists, but also cultural workers and human rights activists.

Only this week, Egypt closed down the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art and Merit Publishing House and refused entry to the Tunisian writer Amal Karami.

Reports continue to show that Egypt is becoming one of the most repressive states for journalists.

This is not news to Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mahmoud "Shawkan" Abu Zeid, Ismail Alexandrani and others who languish in prison. As they say now in Egypt, there is no freedom after speech.

Egyptian journalists report with anxiety, as the heavy arms of the censor and the prison cell rest on their shoulders.

To speak of press freedom in Saudi Arabia is comical. The case of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger, now sentenced to a thousand lashes is a cause célèbre around the world. His is a good test of the lack of permissibility in the Saudi media landscape.

My own experiences with reporting on the kafala system in the 1990s showed me the narrow confines of Saudi tolerance for any reporting that reveals the underbelly of its society.

Denials of reporters' entry permits are the easiest way to make sure that unpleasant news does not filter out. Hostile minders make it impossible to talk to ordinary people. There is no basic guarantee of press freedom (Article 39, Basic Law of 1992).

During the Arab Spring, in April 2011, Saudi Arabia's leadership passed new regulations that banned publication of anything that it deemed against Sharia or state interests. Suspicious activities include promotion of foreign interests and harm to public order - both vague enough to allow the regime to define anything as taboo.

The UAE, meanwhile, is a strange case. Over the past few years, the UAE has made a great attempt to show the world that it has a more tolerant attitude to press freedom than many of its regional neighbours.

In 2009, before the Arab Spring, its Federal National Council voted to rescind some restrictions on the press and to remove the penalty of imprisonment of journalists - except in the case of insulting the royal family and for revealing military secrets. This move by the Council is still not yet law.

Nonetheless, the rulers have repeatedly made public comments that they are interested in greater press freedoms.

Read more: International Federation of Journalists condemns The New Arab restrictions

Indeed, Pakistani satellite television channels - such as Geo TV and ARY News - are based in Dubai Media City, from where they broadcast to Pakistan. Typically, the UAE is more tolerant of these channels.

But here there is an indicator of why the UAE might have followed the Saudi ban of al-Araby al-Jadeed and its English-language sister, The New Arab. In 2007, General Pervez Musharraf - as supreme leader in Pakistan - asked the UAE to pull the plug on GEO TV and ARY News.

They had been broadcasting material that he did not like. The UAE agreed and the channels went down. When the winds changed in Pakistan, the channels went back up. The UAE's patina of press freedom is limited by its geopolitical alliances. When its allies want action against a media outlet, the UAE delivers.

A report from the Federation of Arab Journalists released earlier this year,The State of Press Freedom in the Arab World, 2014-15, makes a statement that saddened me:

"General, political and press freedom were restricted compared to the previous time, especially the two years preceding the Arab Spring."

In other words, the years before the Arab Spring witnessed the opening up of the press. Since the crackdown and counter-revolution, matters have gone downhill. There is less freedom of the press now than there was before 2011.

The robust air of Tahrir has not been able to find expression in the institutions of culture, although - arguably - it has made an impact on the culture of the region. The Arab people - who saw, for instance, Bassem Youssef as the manifestation of their own desires - now expect much more than when they lived under the previous dictators.

What is it specifically that has bothered Saudi Arabia, which is what led the UAE and Egypt to follow its lead? It is hard to say. Perhaps the kingdom did not like the tone of the coverage on its war on Yemen - for indeed there have been several harsh news reports on that conflict.

But what could the kingdom expect when it prosecutes a war in a manner that mirrors the Israeli wars on the Palestinians in Gaza? Perhaps the kingdom did not like the article that suggested that its new anti-IS coalition was merely a PR stunt? Even here there is surely latitude inside the palaces for such a discussion.

What is most likely the cause of this ban is that inside the royal regime there is a great debate ongoing on the failures of Saudi foreign policy.

Many have suggested that the execution of 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, is part of this palace churning. Could press freedom be one of the additional victims of the fear inside Saudi Arabia's royal coterie that its economy, society and politics are in sharp danger?

One can only speculate.

Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback). Follow him on Twitter: @VijayPrashad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.