On Tuesday, February 16, Democracy Centre for Transparency hosted a webinar on Freedom of Expression in the Middle East. The webinar was attended by MEP Abir Al-Sahlani, vice-Chair of the delegation for relations with Iraq and member of Renew Europe Group, MEP Mikulas Peksa , member of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group and Mr.Monir Zaarour, Middle East and Arab World Policy and Programme Director at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
The webinar tackled different aspects including the reality of freedom of expression 10 years after the Arab Spring, the role of free internet in connecting people, giving information and fostering freedom of expression and the situation of freedom of expression in MENA region.
Highlighting the situation of freedom of expression after 10 years of the Arab Spring, Ms. Abir Alsahlani started the webinar conforming that democracy and rule of law cannot exist side by side while taking away freedom of expression not only for ordinary citizens but also for journalists and activists, and you cannot democracy and rule of law criteria without respecting the freedom of expression.
According to her experience, Ms. Alsahlani asserted that the freedom of expression in the Middle East is always defined by what suits the power in the government, serving either Islamic propaganda, anti-Islamic propaganda, western friendly propaganda, or Chinese friendly propaganda.
Ms. Abir referred to Loujain Al-Hathloul, the Saudi women activist who has been recently set free after spending long in jail because of her activism and own thoughts, representing an example of atrocities practiced against freedom of expression in the Middle East.
Shedding light on the role of free internet in connecting people, giving information and
fostering freedom, Mr. Mikuláš PEKSA chose Al Tahrir Square protest as the best example in the Middle East; the protest that changed the way we should think about the possibilities of social media and the internet whereas facebook, twitter, and other platforms greatly contributed to topple down the region of Mubarak.
Mr. PEKSA expressed his concerns about governmental censorship on the internet blocking different websites and applications to Iran and more significantly to Turkey which is known as one of the most popular blockers through the capacity of the Turkish constitutional court, and to Iran as well.
Mr. Mikuláš ended his intervention confirming that communication, access to the internet, and spread of information is a basic human rights, not only in the MENA region but also across the world.
Mr.Monir Zaarour started his intervention emphasizing that freedom of expression is not important by itself as a fundamental right for citizens, but rather as a key contributor to progress towards democracy in all societies.
Mr. Zaarour stated- according to Amnesty International- that in 2019, 130 persons were arrested for expressing their views on the internet across the region, and 360 human rights defenders in the political sphere were either detained or legally harassed in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel.
He added that according to Article 19, MENA region is at the bottom of the list in terms of how much access to freedom of expression citizens have. The level of freedom of expression in 2019 was below the level of 2009 due to legal restrictions that control the ability to express. Reported Mr.Zaarour.
Middle East Programme Director elaborated that the bottom five countries in the region in terms of freedom of expression are Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. Mr.Monir ended his contributing reminding that lack of education on freedom of expression is an extremely significant deficit in the region since freedom of expression is regally restricted by law, so we cannot find education on it in the formal education system. Hence, generations are progressively losing the chance as young people to decide, analyse, and define the concept of freedom of expression