As tensions between Gulf states reached new peaks following the fake news on leaked statements by Qatari leader Emir Hamad bin Hamad al-Thani, a wave of censorship swept the Arab region, in particular Gulf countries. The upshot of these developments has been one the largest censorship campaigns of its kind in the region.
Predictably, the target of these campaigns have been Qatari news websites, most prominently Al Jazeera and the Qatari News Agency, as well as local news outlets, such as Al-Watan and Raya, among others. Though Qatar officially denied the “leak” later, it was to no avail; the ire of fellow GCC states was beyond assuagement.
Leading the charge was the UAE, where citizens and residents were redirected to a message calling on them to “Surf Safely!” when visiting the blocked websites. It was soon followed by Saudi Arabia, which stated that the content on the websites violated the regulations of the Ministry of Culture and Information.
Egypt subsequently joined the fray, outdoing its Gulf allies by blocking 21 different news websites, among them Al Jazeera. However, the chokehold extended to websites such as Huffpost Arabi, taking its cue from a previous decision made by Saudi Arabia, as well as independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, though the reasons behind blocking the latter were unclear.
The Egyptian authorities justified the decision by claiming that the campaign aimed to counter news outlets with content that “supports terrorism” and spreads false news.
‘From the Margins We Emerge’
The latest climax in the conflict uncovered a great deal of what was concealed by existing alliances, taking on a political dimension in spite of Qatar’s appeals to consolidate its position by explaining that the incident resulted from a hacking attempt. Ultimately, the incident exemplified the expendability of freedom of the press as collateral damage in the face of ongoing political conflicts between regimes.
Moreover, another noteworthy detail is the fact that the blocked websites do not fall under the same umbrella. Among them are official outlets that reflect the Qatari state’s position, and thus blocking them was not necessarily considered a violation of freedom of expression. Others were websites that maintain ties with the authorities but still retain a degree of independence, while others still, such as Mada Masr, are completely independent. In the case of the latter, their targeting came in the context of settling old scores—a feat that was facilitated by the surrounding events.
Yet, irrespective of the political alignment of the media outlets, this far-reaching campaign reignited fears over their protection from the political powers. It moreover raised questions over the efficacy of blocking websites, in light of the developed technologies that allow people to circumvent such barriers with ease.
In light of the existing technologies, are censorship efforts counterproductive?
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have undertaken a mass censorship campaign, sending a clear message about press freedom.
More importantly, it raises the question of what the actual benefits of censorship are. Professor of media studies Barrie Gunter previous stated that censorship may actually be counterproductive, leading readers to become more intent on accessing the blocked content, and encouraging them to take on a political position, whereas they may not have had one to begin with. He further contends that people are subsequently driven to finding innovative ways for self-organization and communication.
Moreover, from a technical perspective, there are numerous methods to overcome the blocking of websites. As soon as it had confirmed that it had been blocked, Mada Masr, for example, posted a message with a cartoon on its Facebook page, stating: “Even though we would cherish a break, we will continue to publish through existing platforms, as well as our website… We are the children of margins; from there we emerge and re-emerge. Stay tuned on how to find us again.”
The website has since resumed posting on its websites, as well as on Google Docs, for those unable to access the page.
Tools to Circumvent Censorship
Though the case of Mada Masr can be regarded as exceptional in this context, nonetheless, the authorities’ decision to block these websites constitutes a political message to media outlets, rather than simply being an act of censorship.
In 2015, Facebook launched the Instant Articles application, which was considered yet another in a series of threats to the future of traditional journalism. However, the application also played a critical role in establishing access to information among audiences that are targeted by censorship efforts. Moreover, proxy servers and VPN services allow users to easily bypass censored websites.
Yet, this does not foreclose the negative effects of censorship efforts. In our current stage of technological advancement, censorship does not achieve its aim of preventing access to information. Rather, it can be said that such attempts are effectively subliminal threats, and constitute the imposition of control over freedom of expression and its adverse effect on the interests of the authorities.
Such efforts are passed off under different titles and pretexts; at times it is “regulating the sector”, at others it is “countering terrorism and false news”.
‘You’re Either With Us or Against Us’
A few years ago, the Jordanian authorities blocked 291 local news websites, on the basis of regulating the press sector, stating that these websites were unlicensed. The decision was widely denounced as a violation of Jordan’s regional and international commitments to human rights and freedom of expression, which are guaranteed in the kingdom’s constitution.
Jordan was not alone in taking such a decision; similar campaigns unfolded in Palestine, Syria, Bahrain, and Turkey, all of them under the banner of “protecting national security”.
As for Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which according to media professor Noha Mellor are considered the largest media producers in the region, with far reaching media networks, the media battle between them is of a political, strategic nature.
In the midst of this, the authorities have maintained an arbitrary approach in their treatment of different sources of information, failing to recognize the possibility of constructive critique, and thus classifying everything as an act of hostility. Accordingly, this is taken as an opportunity to silence any dissent or ideas that diverge from the official narrative.
The message is clear, in light of the decline of traditional journalism and the increasing availability of publishing methods outside of the umbrella of the state; in this context, the authorities believe that you can either be with them, or against them.
But, as the media landscape develops and responds to swift technological advancements, can this situation last for much longer?