Middle East

The Region

Zoned Out

In an effort to lure Europe-based, Arabic-language satellite television stations to their countries, a number of Arab governments have announced plans to set up “free media zones” (FMZ) that would allow broadcasters a censorship-free environment along with generous tax exemptions. The first such proposal was unveiled in Jordan in late 1999 at the behest of King Abdullah II.

In January, the cabinet approved a draft law setting up a framework for the zone, to be located outside of Amman. According to Prime Minister Abdel Raouf al-Rawabdeh, the FMZ would exempt foreign news media from the country’s tough censorship and press laws that have been used against local journalists.

“This project is a national achievement aimed at attracting Jordanian, Arab, and foreign investments alike and giving them complete freedom to set up satellite stations as well as radio, television, and cinema production companies,” Al-Rawabdeh was quoted in the independent Jordan Times (Jan. 12).

But questions remain as to whether Arab governments, not known for championing press freedom, will foster genuinely free environments for foreign journalists.

In a column written late last year (Nov. 2, 1999), Jordan Times columnist Rami Khouri attacked the Jordanian proposal as an “idea grossly discriminatory against Jordanians….It establishes a dual legal system within the country for Jordanians and non-Jordanians that may be acceptable when it comes to pure economic activities like exporting cucumbers or women’s underwear, but it strikes me as inappropriate when it comes to activities that involve intellectual, cultural, and artistic output,” he comments. In a similar vein, Ghassan al-Imam, writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat of London (Feb. 11) as reported by the London-based digest Mideast Mirror (Feb. 11), maintains that “freedom is indivisible. It does not come in parts. It is an all-or-none sum game.” And Khouri believes that the lopsided arrangement will also restrict the development of Jordanian media at the expense of foreign news organizations.

Khaled Hroub, writing in London’s Saudi-owned Al-Hayat, cautions that the FMZs are doomed to fail unless authorities uphold their promise to respect editorial freedom and eliminate red tape. “It is imperative not to lower the ceiling of freedom below that already enjoyed by leading Arab media such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Satellite channel,” he says in reference to the trend-setting television station that has made its mark throughout the Arab world with bold, uncensored news coverage.

The early signs are not encouraging. Jordan’s draft law outlines a “code of honor” for journalists working out of the FMZ. “[A] quick glance at the Jordanian FMZ ‘Covenant of Honor’ proves that [the FMZ idea] is no more than an illusion,” writes Ghassan Al-Imam. But content restrictions aside, an even greater challenge for Arab governments hoping to host international media will be to streamline bureaucratic hurdles such as permit and customs procedures.

The Palestinian-expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi of London (Jan. 20) sardonically questions how countries such as Egypt and Jordan, notorious for arcane customs procedures, can expect to serve as a hub for international Arab media. In order to get to the Jordanian zone, the paper complains, a journalist “has to go through Amman airport, where one encounters computer screens and officials who ask him the names of his father, grandfather, great grandfather, and his mother’s third name.”