Media and Democracy in the Arab World: The Future of Freedoms and Rights in the Digital Era

Read conference summary

Watch conference sessions

View conference pictures

Conference Sessions

Keynote Address
US Media and the Arab World: Freedom of Expression on Palestine

Marc Lamont Hill
Award-winning Journalist; Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions, Temple University

Khalil E. Jahshan – Moderator
Executive Director, Arab Center Washington DC

The Arab Public Sphere in the Age of New Authoritarianism

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry
Associate Professor and Chair, Media and Cultural Studies and Journalism Program, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies

Sahar Khamis
Associate Professor of Communication, University of Maryland, College Park

Rami G. Khouri
Senior Public Policy Fellow, Professor of Journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence, American University of Beirut

Summer Lopez
Senior Director of Free Expression Programs, Pen America

Imad K. Harb – Moderator
Director of Research and Analysis, Arab Center Washington DC

Luncheon Conversation
Silencing the Truth: The Case of Jamal Khashoggi

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov
Legal Advisor to Agnes Callamard, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; Participated in the UN human rights inquiry into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; Program Officer, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University

Reema Abuhamdieh – Moderator
Presenter and Reporter, Al Araby Television Network

Controlling the Narrative, Silencing Dissent: Media Politics and Freedom of Expression

Hala Aldosari
Wilhelm Fellow, MIT Center for International Studies

Sut Jhally
Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Courtney C. Radsch
Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalist and author of Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

Daoud Kuttab – Moderator
Award-winning Journalist and Media Activist

Cyber Geopolitics and the Weaponization of Social Media

Jessica Dheere
Deputy Director, Ranking Digital Rights

Karen Gullo
Analyst and Senior Media Relations Specialist, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Marc Owen Jones
Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities, Hamad bin Khalifa University

Tamara Kharroub – Moderator
Assistant Executive Director and Senior Research Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC


Conference summary

Arab Center Washington DC’s fourth annual conference, titled “Media and Democracy in the Arab World: The Future of Freedoms and Human Rights in the Digital Era,” addressed the role of social and news media since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010-2011. Coming as the Arab world experiences more protests in Lebanon and Iraq, which also followed others in Algeria and Sudan, the conference sought to address the importance of digital media in demanding political change, freedom of expression, and democracy. The conference also examined the Arab governments’ attempts to further control the public space through curtailment of freedoms, limits on cyber-space, and widespread utilization of the digital media as a tool of repression.

The conference consisted of five sessions: a morning keynote address on the US media and the Arab world and the question of Palestine, a luncheon interview with an advisor to the UN investigation into the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and three panel sessions on the Arab public sphere, media politics and freedom of expression, and the weaponization of social media. Panelists included university professors, journalists, and social and news media experts from the United States and abroad.


Keynote Address: “US Media and the Arab World: Freedom of Expression on Palestine”

Marc Lamont Hill, Steve Charles Professor in Media, Cities, and Solutions, Temple University

Marc Lamont Hill explained that in American society, there are prevalent negative associations with the Middle East and these stem from a racist and Orientalist point of view that couches the region as a moral intellectual opposite of the West. Coupled with Americans’ general lack of knowledge of the area and fundamental misunderstandings about it, this leads to dehumanization of Arab and Muslim lives and reinforces a view that Arab communities are unable to engage in work toward equality, justice, freedom, and democracy. Hill said that because those in the West believe that democracy is a uniquely western product, they think that the Arab world is not ready for it. Indeed, he said that such a framework limits conversation in the media—and in society in general—about the Middle East. “We have to have a moral and ethical vocabulary that informs the work that we do,” he asserted.

In the United States, Hill said that the media’s role includes holding those in power accountable, finding solutions to social problems, and expanding on democratic possibilities. In theory, he noted, freedom of expression is a constitutional right; however, there are political, intellectual, and professional constraints in place that prevent people from speaking out. He said that “sometimes we don’t speak truths because of the consequence of speaking them.” As an example of such consequences, Hill used his own experience of being fired from CNN for his speech on Palestine at the United Nations, a speech that was based on years of research and travel in the region.

As for Palestine, Hill argued that the uneven relations of power—especially between Israel, an occupying power that violates international law, and the Palestinians —are not taken into account and are actually buttressed by the American media. The idea that both sides are expected to talk as equals “makes for great TV,” he said, but paints a skewed reality that is based on factors of uneven power, capital, and influence, especially of the West in maintaining the status quo. The discourse of “they have been fighting forever” and “the conflict is intractable,” he explained, reinforces that there is a lack of possibility and capacity among Arab communities to engage in working toward a peaceful solution—that this particular narrative precludes a conversation about the region as a place of human agency and democratization.


Panel 1: “The Arab Public Sphere in the Age of New Authoritarianism”

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry, Associate Professor and Chair, Media and Cultural Studies Program and Journalism Program, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies

Sahar Khamis, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Maryland, College Park

Rami G. Khouri, Senior Public Policy Fellow, Professor of Journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence, American University of Beirut

Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs, PEN America

Rami Khouri began the panel by asserting that the Arab world has hardly had a public sphere because it was always monopolized by the authoritarian state. Thus people had to go along with the state’s policy of physical development and progress and to refrain from demanding change in sociopolitical matters. The old authoritarian state promised to provide the material well-being in exchange for full loyalty and control. Indeed, the Arab people’s actual bodies have been in the state’s hands to do with as it pleases; today, the security-military state has moved to control people’s souls and emotions. Social media has become another tool to make that possible. The response, according to Khouri, is to work to preserve freedom in the face of the state’s attempt at thought control. He stressed that the state’s lies about everyday life can only be faced with the immutable truth. Additionally, the state as an extension of the leader’s family has made repression necessary and dominant as an ideology. Khouri concluded that the state is moving in to assert itself in all aspects of life and to force its citizens to think in the way it sees fit.

Sahar Khamis argued that many of the writings about the Arab Spring, especially at the beginning of the uprisings, focused on the significant contributions and promising potentials of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Most of them hailed the process of “cyber activism,” or the utilization of social media for the purpose of socio-political activism and democratic transformation. Eight years later, with all the detours and reversals in “post-Arab Spring” countries’ journeys toward democratization and reform, we have discovered that there has been an “over-crediting” and “over-celebration” of social media. This same tool is now being used by the authoritarian state (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others) to fight the desire for change and to spread misinformation and disinformation. Today’s politics is one of polarization and social media is a tool in dividing people. One important observation is that Syria learned how to stifle social media activism from the Egyptian and Tunisian examples. Saudi Arabia is using social media to close down the remaining public sphere and to imprison activists. This is why there has to be a reexamination of the utility of cyber activism; she said that society now needs a large dose of “cyber-realism” because of the inflated hopes that social media has allowed to grow.

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry addressed dominant characteristics of Arab news systems, with attention to overlaps and tensions in the areas of media freedom, professionalism, and ownership. He referred to Siebert et al.’s work (1956) on classification schemes and asserted that no study of media systems can be made without reference to political systems. Most countries in the region can be safely considered “authoritarian,” with media systems characterized by near-exclusive government ownership, restrictive regulatory frameworks, and censorial cultures. Still, it is important to note that media systems are monolithic; for example, there are indeed differences in how Al Jazeera, a Qatari-based news outlet, treats issues as compared to Al Arabiyya, which is Saudi-based. Using Egypt’s case over the last eight years, he asserted that the best time for media freedom was between 2011 and 2013. Since 2013, Egypt has become more authoritarian than ever and media outlets reflect that situation. In addition, in the ongoing Gulf crisis, the media also mirrors political positions and regime policies in their frames of reference, guests, programs, and issues. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya were completely different in how they looked at the same events and reported on them from totally opposite angles, reflecting how political systems viewed the crisis.

Summer Lopez emphasized the importance of process in the demand for change and how governments impede it. She said that the recent examples of Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq illustrate that the Arab public is still demanding freedom of expression despite the brutal treatment of their governments. Differences between provincial/rural areas and cities are also significant, she affirmed. Governments seem to be relying on past experience to manage social media activism: they have devised ways to respond but also to crack down on activists. The public sphere has been occupied more and more by this response, which limits the area for public discourse about democratic change. Lopez put some blame on the United States for not advancing the cause of democratic change. She also said that the traditional media landscape also includes artists, novelists, and poets who are now seen as agitators and are being imprisoned in Egypt. In Saudi Arabia religious figures and women rights activists are also sent to jail.


Luncheon Conversation: “Silencing the Truth: The Case of Jamal Khashoggi”

Reema Abuhamdieh, Presenter and Reporter, Al Araby Television Network

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov, Legal Adviser to Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; Program Officer, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University

In a luncheon conversation, Reema Abuhamdieh discussed the implications and limitations of the UN Human Rights Council inquiry into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov. On the significance of the UN investigation and final report, released this past June, Avezdjanov noted that the report, which took six months to produce and involved hundreds of interviews, “kicked the ball forward” in the quest for accountability by providing a detailed, evidence-based grounding for the fact that Khashoggi’s murder was carried out by the Saudi state. It also brought attention back to the killing more than half a year after it took place.

Fundamentally, however, Avezdjanov affirmed that accountability depends on the willingness of the international community to act, as the report is non-binding. He noted that the rapporteur was tasked with the investigation because no UN member country was willing to request a criminal investigation. He argued that those countries with close relations to Saudi Arabia have preferred to remain silent largely out of a fear that instability in Saudi Arabia would lead to a rise in terrorism and an outpouring of refugees. Avezdjanov criticized the Trump Administration in particular, which was largely unwilling to cooperate with the investigation. The lack of an international response, Avezdjanov argued, should be worrisome to journalists everywhere. With the publication of the report, he suggested that the international community can no longer hide. He emphasized the importance of the fact that the report shows that the “truth comes out” and that it is difficult to silence dissent—a sign of hope for those continuing to protest across the Arab world despite predictable crackdowns.

On next steps toward accountability, Avezdjanov noted the success of the passing of the Malinowski amendment in the US House of Representatives as well as the effort by Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)—who used the language of the UN report—to call for the FBI director and the Director of National Intelligence to declassify information about Khashoggi’s killing. If the United States acts, Avezdjanov suggested that it would create a global effect, encouraging other states to speak out, given the closeness of the Saudi-US relationship. And while Avezdjanov argued that the ICC can only play a limited role, he urged private US citizens to hold elected officials and businesses accountable to keep up the pressure to act.
On the future of freedom of expression in the Arab world, Avezdjanov discussed the standing mechanism proposed by Callamard to investigate threats to journalists and human rights activists, as well as the protocol she is developing to standardize how states should respond to these issues and how investigations should proceed. He also noted that Columbia University is launching a database in Arabic on freedom of expression case law, which he hopes will be a vital resource for activists across the region.


Panel 2: “Controlling the Narrative, Silencing Dissent: Media Politics and Freedom of Expression”

Hala Aldosari, Wilhelm Fellow, MIT Center for International Studies

Sut Jhally, Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Courtney C. Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists; Journalist and author of Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt

Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

The second panel departed from the traditional format in that the moderator, Daoud Kuttab (a journalist and media activist), posed questions to the panelists. Their answers addressed a number of issues, including the tools and methods that governments in the Middle East employ to curb freedom of expression in general and voices of the media in particular.

Hala Aldosari said that governments in the Middle East sometimes use the pretext of protecting national security in order to justify torture and interrogation of their citizens. And when the families of the detained have leaked information to the public, they, too, have been arrested. Another example was when the coalition countries decided to blockade Qatar, they demanded the closure of Al Jazeera; the result was that all those who had written for the network became targets—this was framed as a national security issue. The big problem, Aldosari stated, is accountability by the ruling elites: when there is no freedom of expression, then it is difficult to have transparency. In Saudi Arabia in particular, the example of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination had a chilling effect on freedom of speech. It spurred people to say what they think outsiders want to hear from them, rather than putting forth their own views.

Sut Jhally explained how the Arab world is understood in American society: the cultural level, where all Arabs are presented as a homogeneous group whose civilizational ethos clashes with that of the West; and the institutional/structural level that is undergirded by American corporate media and political elites who have a black-and-white view of other countries—as either enemies or allies. Jhally discussed Israel’s efforts to target journalists, especially in Gaza, who are often arrested or killed; he said that this way, the Israelis can control the narrative, prevent truthful reporting, and impel the media toward self-censorship. In the United States, he said the Israel lobby has tried to suppress criticism of Israel by charging critics with anti-Semitism, thus aiming to silence the discourse. Another insidious example is their success in getting the US State Department to eliminate the world “occupation” in its reports when referring to Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories.

Courtney Radsch asserted that the trend among Middle Eastern governments is to ignore constitutional rights and to further criminalize journalism, especially after the Arab uprisings began. This is achieved through the promulgation of counterterrorism and false news laws; imprisonment; crackdowns on journalists; sophisticated hacking and surveillance strategies; severe general censorship and targeted, systematic censorship online, including internet shutdowns during time of protest; and arrests and re-arrests of those reporting and expressing opinions. The effect has been to drown out voices online that try to circumvent censorship; such policies also send a strong signal that writers and media outlets need to be self-censoring. Radsch also spoke about the need to look beyond those on the front lines and to acknowledge the creativity and resilience of people and activists on the ground.

Sarah Leah Whitson argued that Arab governments view their citizens as enemies and as threats to their privilege and corruption. This has meant increasing control over means of information sharing and expression and has led to a dramatic closure of political, artistic, and cultural freedom, thus stifling freedom of expression broadly and deeply. Their tools include blocking websites and subjectively determining what is unlawful speech, surveillance of citizenry, and arrest and detention. Whitson said that although citizens, human rights activists, and journalists continue to report and express their opinions, they experience anxiety and depression and many engage in self-censorship, whether deliberate or unconscious. Many have gone into exile, cut off from their families and livelihoods, thus further draining the region of expertise, and this halts the natural development of their societies.


Panel 3: “Cyber Geopolitics and the Weaponization of Social Media”

Jessica Dheere, Deputy Director, Ranking Digital Rights

Karen Gullo, Analyst and Senior Media Relations Specialist, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities, Hamad Bin Khalifa University

Marc Owen Jones addressed the increasingly malicious use of Twitter in the Arab world as a tool for disseminating state propaganda and suggested that despite the company’s recent decision to ban political ads, the platform will continue to be abused in the Middle East regardless of individual politicians. He discussed the rise and proliferation of Twitter bots in the Arabic-language Twitter-sphere which exclusively promote state discourses along with sectarian and violent rhetoric. Following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, for example, he noticed that Khashoggi’s name was trending at the lowest rates in Saudi Arabia—despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has the largest Twitter population in the Arab world—and that the vast majority of Arabic language content on Twitter echoed the official Saudi response to the killing. He argued that we should thus fundamentally reevaluate our conception of social media platforms in the Arab world. In addition, because Twitter does not take its weaponization by state actors seriously, we need to demand greater transparency and accountability from the company.

On the recent wave of protests in Lebanon and Iraq, Jessica Dheere began by noting that a common theme as articulated by protesters on Twitter is the reclamation of public space from corrupt private interests. She suggested that this lesson should also equally apply to our relationship with social media platforms, whose algorithms determine what our virtual public spaces look like and who gets to have a say. She argued that digital companies need to be held accountable to basic human rights standards, particularly in the Arab world where they comply with draconian local laws in order to gain access to new markets. Here, she cited the growing links between Silicon Valley and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund; Netflix’s censorship of content deemed critical of Saudi Arabia in the regional market; and Snapchat’s removal of Al Jazeera content in Bahrain. Corporate transparency and accountability will only be more important in the years to come, she noted, as states like Saudi Arabia are increasingly investing in the digital marketplace in a broader shift away from oil dependence.

Karen Gullo discussed the tension between the desire to reign in hate speech on social media and the importance of these platforms as outlets for free political expression, especially in the Arab world. She cautioned that efforts to crack down on dangerous online content may cast too wide a net by further silencing already marginalized groups. Similarly, cybercrime laws are already used by authoritarian governments in the Middle East to limit free expression and jail journalists and activists, often based on the idea that states can shut down online activity to “protect the homeland from the threat of terrorism.” She noted that while some have called for internet platforms to be held liable for the content that is posted on them, expanding liability may incentivize companies to over-censor speech and remove important voices in the region; sloppy content moderation by social media companies, for example, has censored reports of human rights violations in Syria. Along with her co-panelists, she called for platforms to be more transparent in their content moderation policies and encouraged them to create mechanisms for users to submit appeals when they are censored.

Conference Pictures



Thursday October 31, 2019