Freedom of speech in the Arab world and beyond

The freedom to speak one’s mind is essential, not only for a functioning society but also in relationships with friends, colleagues, and family. Because if the dialogue is hindered, in any of the above-mentioned contexts, tensions might rise to the extent of an emotional explosion.

Freedom of expression also manifests itself through channels far beyond political speech or writings. It also includes the right to decide over one’s public appearance in a broader sense including clothing, body language, behaviour etc. these, in turn, might be restricted not only by laws but also norms.

An interesting topic of research regarding the cultural norms posing obstacles to freedom of expression in a middle eastern context would be to analyze the differences (in both use and perception) between the words: Haram (حرام), Mamnua (ممنوع) and Aeb (عيب).

Without going too deep into the nuances of the words, the first one (Haram) indicates that the reason that something is forbidden is religious, whilst Mamnua (ممنوع) seems to be expressed when something is forbidden due to law, lastly, Aeb (عيب) seems to relate to something being forbidden culturally.

As Aeb (عيب) and haram (حرام) are in part social constructs, they overlap both each other and also Mamnua (ممنوع). For example: Drinking alcohol in public or dressing immodestly in most places in Amman, Cairo or Ramallah would be considered all three: Haram(حرام), Mamnua (ممنوع) and Aeb (عيب). But then again there are some exceptional areas which subscribe to an alternative culture, where this act would mostly be considered Haram or Mamnua but not necessarily Aeb.

Other aspects that might pose difficulties to freedom of speech correlate with the probabilities of a successful democratization process. These include the condition of civil society, national economy, income inequality, the level of education etc., checks and balances, functioning and transparency of institutions and the fourth estate.  

Something supporting the role of the above-mentioned aspects is the observation of some societal changes that lead up to the Arab spring or the 2009 protests in Iran, namely: Economic growth and emergence of the middle class and the coming of age of Generation Y who found alternative channels of communication and information.

 
Freedom of expression in Jordan after 2011

Freedom of speech like any civil liberty is an asset that can be either regulated or encouraged by the authorities and state structures. Rana F. Sweis, Benjamin Lennett and Tom Glaisyer suggest a number of policy changes that would improve freedom of speech in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The article was published in the Journal of information policy. These policy changes include:

  • Smaller fees and an easier and more transparent process when applying for broadcasting licenses.
  • Removing restrictions on content so that self-censorship might decline.

The reason for concern of for example self-censorship is motivated as according to a 2010 survey by the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists, members of the Jordanian press tended to avoid criticism of the following issues/establishments:

  • the armed forces
  • judicial authorities
  • the security apparatus
  • tribal leaders
  • religious issues
  • criticism of leaders of Arab countries
  • discussion of issues related to sex

However, the reasons to self-censorship do not spring solely from jurisdiction but also takes us back to the earlier discussion about Haram (حرام), Mamnoua (ممنوع) and Aeb (عيب) as a journalist or anyone engaging in the public discussion might self-censor due to a fear of being shamed. The authors of Sweis, Lennet & Glaisyer also consider that the Jordanian media scene is lacking variety and competition, which the authors see as essential in improving freedom of speech.

What clash of civilizations?

As noted earlier in the article the notion of freedom of speech, is also closely related to how well a country meets democratic criteria’s and the set of values the society bears which at least in parts are related to socio-economic factors.

This is a thought that has partially coloured political scientist Francis Fukuyama that somewhat naively thought that if countries simply develop enough, they will automatically lead to democracy as a linear process. Political scientist Ronald Inglehart was on the same lines but attached the theory strongly to “values” and economic development.

So, what should we make of these theories? Does this mean that we can bury the clash of civilization thought for good? Is it as simple as that? It is just a question of making efforts to maintain the economy and democratization process and things will just magically kind of sort themselves out by themselves? And where does this leave the cultural context? Or is there something as such?

Ingleheart now together with acclaimed American political scientist Pippa Norris published an article in 2003 called “the true clash of civilizations” in which the authors argue that the urge for democracy or parts of it such as freedom of speech is not based on culture but is rather universal.

Yes, culture matters, according to the survey views between the East and the West differentiated especially regarding: gender, divorce, and abortion. However, this would not mean that they would be incompatible with freedom of speech. It is ok to disagree both internationally and domestically. But it is easier to come to terms with differences if we just talk about them as freely as possible. By Johannes Jauhiainen

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