A Blatant Disregard for the Rights of Women and the Freedom of Expression

“The anger expressed on the street has also shown how Iranians feel about the omnipresent so called ‘morality police’ and compulsory veiling laws. It is high time for these discriminatory laws and the security forces enforcing them to be completely removed from Iranian society, for once and for all.” – Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

This blogpost contains content, both written and visual, that maybe disturbing to the reader.

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Reflection: Saudi Arabia Government Sentences Woman to 45 Years for Her Tweets

 

At the beginning of September, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison after being held for more than a year. She was sentenced for, “‘using the Internet to tear the [country’s] social fabric’ and ‘violating the public order by using social media’”. She was convicted by the Specialized Criminal Court under the Counter-Terrorism Law and Anti-Cyber Crime law. Her arrest and sentence came after she tweeted opinions and criticisms of the Saudi government. Abdullah Alaoudh, the Director of Research for the Gulf Region at DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), stated, “‘It is impossible not to connect the dots between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with President Biden last month in Jeddah and the uptick in the repressive attacks against anyone who dares criticize the Crown Prince or the Saudi government for well-documented abuses.” The article then goes deeper into the laws that were used to sentence Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani. The laws are overly broad and vague in language and allow the government more flexibility when it comes to interpretation.

My area of focus is on expression and the lack thereof. This article is a clear representation of what the lack of expression is within a country. Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was not only sentenced for expressing specifically an opinion on the government, but she was also sentenced an unfair amount of time. This is the government’s opportunity to further their oppression by socially criminalizing the freedom of expression. How is this an issue? First, through the government’s ability to punish opinions and the posting of them in general. Second, the amount of time given for this “crime” is excessive. 45 years in prison for opinions sends a message. 45 years in prison sets an message to the public that simple forms of expression through social media can result in censorship and oppression for the rest of your life. This article taught me how easy it can be for governments to censor a person and potentially a community or movement. All you need is an overly broad law with punishments that are disproportionate to the crime. These harsh punishments tell the public that freedom of expression comes at an extreme cost that most aren’t willing to pay. This fear alone creates a practice of self-censorship. The “management” of expression has become a tool that instills self-censorship and allows the government to pick and choose who’s violated what.

Agenda-Setting and Framing: What Does This Mean for Freedom of Expression

The freedom of expression, the freedom of press, and censorship are controlled by the public and the government. The media outlets themselves such as blogs, news channels, and social media platforms are meant to translate the feelings and positions of those they service. However, in order to properly translate the stances of the government, the public, or both, you have to consider the media effects. Media effects center around the presentation of a story. Concepts such as agenda-setting and framing. These concepts effect how media is consumed and thereby interpreted which can lead to censorship, restriction of expression, or even the expansion of expression.

Agenda-Setting

Agenda-setting is the media’s efforts to guide the viewer to what they believe their focus should be on. It is also the allowance of the same article to be shared “frequently and prominently, which leads people to perceive those issues as more important than others”. The concept of agenda-setting looks at the “trending topics” of the day. For example, a source may post about a recent celebrity scandal over state-level tax reform policies. Here, the media crafts the news coverage it wants the public to see, and, in many cases, it crafts the news the government wants the people to see. In relation to expression, this can deny the public’s ability to stay informed and by doing so, this may deny potential future protests from happening. Here, protests, as a form of expression, are being restricted. Agenda-setting can also create a unified public opinion by intentionally withholding political news or criticisms. The repetitive action of agenda-setting is what can cause this influence on public opinion. Its direct effect on expression is clear. Why would anyone care about state level tax reform issues when the hottest celebrity has been caught in a scandal and that scandal has been on the front page of every major media source for the past week. Agenda-setting can be used as a tactic in order to depoliticize the public sphere.

Framing

Framing is one step further compared to agenda-setting. Framing looks at the actual content that is being shared by the media. Framing is about influence. How do journalists write the article in such a way that it persuades or influences a certain group of people or the public as a whole?   It can help to shape how we may think about an issue because of how it’s promoted or presented. Framing offers media outlets the ability to present information that has been carefully selected, vetted, and cleaned rather than post a neutral and “raw” article that presents all the information known. On the opposite end, framing also allows for media to restrict access to certain information leaving the public less informed. How does framing effect expression? It goes back to influence and a unified public opinion. I no longer feel the need to fight against the government when the news has been telling me for weeks that the issues I had, have been resolved and that everything is back to normal. When, in reality there has only been a slight fix to one of the issues and there is still need for necessary concern.

So, What Does This Mean?

These tactics used by the media can be worrying to the public. It begins to form distrust between, specifically, the people and the media. People start to ask questions like, is the information reliable and important even though it is not on the first page? Does framing and agenda-setting really work? How do you know if these newspapers are really giving you all of the puzzle pieces to form your own conclusions? The absence of information can limit a public’s freedom of expression and ability to share with the community. Agenda-setting and framing are powerful tools that can be used by the media to shape public opinion, limit information access, and stunt political critics.

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A Small Reflection on Expression in MENA

The meaning of freedom of the press and freedom of expression are different across countries. In the U.S we understand the freedom of press and expression as our right protected by our Constitution. These freedoms give us the ability to say, write, blog, broadcast, and publish just about anything with protection from the law. This, however, is a luxury. A luxury we take for granted. In the case of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) the “freedom” of press and expression are surveilled by governments, warring parties, or influential political individuals who have connections to large businesses who own the various forms of media. In an effort to provide a general view of expression and the press, I selected two countries to look at specifically. While these two countries are not representative of the entire MENA region, I believe they begin to highlight the issue of the how and what information is spread.

 

Turkey

A large portion, about 90%, of the media is closely tied to the state. These broadcasting channels are owned by large corporations who have been connected to President Erdogan. With these close ties, the media sources controlled by these larger corporations generally reflect the thoughts and positions of the government. The population in Turkey is turning away from the larger national stations to more local stations which include, Halk TV, Tele1, and Sözcü. They also turn to international news websites such as BBC Turkish, VOA Turkish, and Deutsche Welle Turkish. Though these local stations are a source of somewhat bias free information, they are under political pressure from the government and in some instances targeted for prosecution. In terms of information spread through social media, a bill, that amended Turkey’s “Internet Law” Law No. 5651, states that “foreign social network service providers whose services are accessed from Turkey more than 1 million times a day appoint a permanent representative in Turkey…” This law targeted social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube to appoint representatives in Turkey in order to comply with Turkish internet restrictions. With various entities within the government who are heavily influenced by the politics of said government, journalists looking to publish factual information often find that they are faced with legal actions such as getting press passes stripped to full on censorship.

 

Libya

I believe a quote from the Reporters Without Borders index best illustrates the relationship between the press, the public, and government. It states, “journalists are commonly forced into the service of one of the parties involved in the conflict, to the detriment of editorial independence.” This properly sums up the ability to spread information throughout the country. While there is plethora of media outlets in Libya, many journalists and reporters fled the country. Those who did remain found protection from the government by publishing highly partisan content that typically favored the politics or the military and thereby favoring the government. Because of such an influential government, the information that spreads is filled with propaganda, hate speech, or disinformation. Disinformation is a big concern for the country because it calls into question what is true and false and also deteriorates the trust that is usually held between the press and the public. A law passed in 2012 called Law 37 made the spreading of “‘false or vicious news or propaganda’ that harms ‘military efforts to defend the country, terrorizes people, or weakens the morale of citizens’” a criminal offense which was punishable by “an unspecified amount of time”. This law also specifically targeted political speech that “glorifies the tyrant (Muammar Gaddafi)” or insult the Libyan institutions. Later the same year, the Libyan Supreme Court decided that Law 37 was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. Though fighting the restrictive nature of the government, independent journalists and media outlets still strive to report fact-based information.

Though I’ve only researched 2 countries out of the whole MENA region, I found that Libya and Turkey reflect standings on expression and the press that are similar to those of other countries in MENA.