Skyline Holds Webinar on Freedom of Expression in MENA Region in Covid-19 Era
Skyline International Foundation organized a fast-paced, information-rich live webinar on 16 June 2020 on the Freedom of Expression in the MENA region in the Covid-19 era. Daniel Rivera hosted the event as director of Skyline International. This event had featured Paul Cochrane, an independent journalist based in Beirut, Leila Nachawati Rego, a writer and human rights activist and specialist in the Middle East and North Africa, Mohamed Elgohary, a manager of a prestigious international community of volunteers, translating Global Voices content into dozens of languages, and Luciano Zaccara, a research assistant professor in Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University.
Mr. Daniel started the session with a warm welcome introducing himself and the participants who are great experts in the MENA Region. Skyline's Director then introduced the Foundation, its mission, objects, and means of defending human rights and recording violations in the MENA region.
After Rivera's introduced Skyline, the first participant, Luciano Zaccara, discussed freedom of expression and academic freedom from the Arab Spring to the Covid-19. He focused his attention on the GCC, a political and economic union of Arab states bordering the Gulf: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
During the session, Zaccara hit the points on how the different crises affected the whole region in terms of freedom of expression and academic freedom. He provided data from Freedom House and other similar sources, and he stated: "Despite the fact, there have been very waves of democratization in Africa, Latin America, and Asian countries, there are still resilient countries in terms of moving toward democracy." Said Zaccara.
Zaccara added that the situation did not change drastically since the 90s and till 2020. After the gulf war, the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Afghanistan- Iraq wars, and the Arab spring (2011-2011), most of the Arab world remains the same. Since the 90's only Tunisia has become democratic in the MENA Region: Tunisia, while other countries are struggling to become more democratic.
According to the V-Dem Institute, in terms of Media freedom and freedom of expression, Kuwait is the best in government censorship efforts, and Bahrain is the worst one compared with the Six GCC States.
Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain are sharing the same levels of Internet censorship compared with Oman, Emirates, and Qatar, which are showing the lowest rankings.
Kuwait is the country that shows a more stable situation compared with the other GCC states in terms of media self-censorship. "The Arab Spring had many implications, such as the reinforcement of internet security frameworks, new anti-terrorism, and migration laws. States are using these new tools to crack down on dissident groups or individuals accusing them of terrorism, and deporting activists and opposition (like what happened in Bahrain and UAE mainly)." Said Zaccara.
Then, the second participant Mohamed Al-Gohary proceeded the discussion talking about the Arab governments' role about freedom of expression. He stated that the Arab governments have been working on disconnecting people for several factors, like increasing internet infiltration after 2011, which, as he believes, is the reason that affected freedom of expression more than the Arab Spring. The Arab governments did not fit this kind of freedom by the internet before 2011 in terms of affordability and infiltration; for example, Egypt has 45 million users in 2019.
Arab governments become afraid of this wave of people who become online." Said Al-Gohary.He pointed out that freedom of expression and independence are always connected or oversaw by security. Censorship has increased in the last few years, especially with the rise of MBS of both Saudi Arabia and UAE, and due to wars, he mentioned.
After that, Leila Nachawati Rego outlined how the Covid-19 pandemic has led to repression and disinformation. She stated that Covid-19 Pandemic is giving more room to already very repressive contexts and to human rights violations for more justifications of violence, oppression, and silencing of dissent. She added that where there is a high degree of authoritarianism, the pandemic of Covid-19 is creating more ground for an increase in human rights violations. However, such a crisis requires passing new laws and new forms of censorship.
"We have heard a lot that the authoritarian governments are better at managing pandemics. However, this is not the case; the denial of the pandemic leads to confusion and disinformation," stated Rego.
During her part of the discussion, she stated that not only has there been a denial of the pandemic, but also there has been repression. There is a trend of arrests in Syria, Egypt, and Iran. "There is nothing better for a pandemic to spread than the inhumane treatment in such prisons," Rego added.
Before the end of the webinar, the last participant Paul Cochrane indicated to the challenges journalists face during the pandemic era and before. "one of the big dangers, I think now is that it is taking the attention out of the major challenges that are facing the region before." He added
Cochrane also shed light on the targeted killings of journalists, saying, "we have seen in the last few years huge increases in targeted killings of journalists covering environmental issues."
At the end of the webinar, Skyline's Director thanked the speakers for joining the session, hoping more cooperation and projects will come in the near future.