Freedom of expression in the Middle East

(photo cred: SAT -7)

(photo credit SAT -7)

Middle East (SAT-7) — [As freedom of expression is discussed after January’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Terence Ascott, Founder and International Chief Executive of SAT-7, shares his thoughts on the power of freedom of the media in the Middle East.]

Forty nations of about 3.5 million people marched in France in protest after three days of terrorist killings. Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish cartoons of Islam’s prophet prompted criticism that was unnecessarily provocative and has now been condemned by Middle East and North African governments (Al Ahram Online, 14th January 2015).

This has all fueled a public debate about what press freedom really means. Is it a licence (even, in these days, a provocation) to say whatever we want, or are there some universal laws of decency and respect that also need to be adhered to?

But we also need to understand that the offence taken by Muslims over cartoons depicting their prophet goes beyond a reaction to lampooning. In Islam, it is widely considered unacceptable to depict a prophet in any way–whether it be Mohammed, Adam, Noah, or any other.

Apart from what is allowed, or even considered, by the majority in a given society as acceptable in terms of criticizing or poking fun at different segments of society, there is also the issue of strategy: what is the point of making fun of someone’s religion? It might make some feel good. It might be genuinely funny and thought-provoking. It might be designed to shock and embarrass specific individuals so that certain kinds of behaviour are discredited and eventually discontinued.

But if we consider the Muslim community in Europe, is giving offense going to help change the extremists, or instead deepen their feelings of being marginalized and belittled? Will attacking their religion or prophet lead to them learning to better respect Western democratic values and open debate or personal and press freedoms? Or will it create stronger resentment and rejection of the perceived excesses of liberty–a liberty that appears to have thrown away any sense of decency, respectfulness, or personal and civic responsibility for minorities in our society?

When SAT-7 was creating its founding documents and programming policies some 20 years ago, we recognised that satellite television presented us, for the first time in history, with the opportunity to go into millions of homes across the Arab World and to say what we like! We were able to by-pass all the usual censorship that is imposed on the press, radio and television in the Middle East!

But, did this mean that we should then use this to attack other people’s faith, in order to promote our own and thereby win converts? For sure, some have since chosen this path, but from the beginning we recognised that not only would such a strategy provoke a backlash on local “soft target” Christian communities but it would also be unproductive!

The power of television and radio to change lives lies is in the ability to build long-term relationships with audiences, to be “invited” into closed homes in closed countries day after day, to share positive messages–to present the wonderful and good news of the Gospel. Attacking someone else’s beliefs, in any way, simply offends them and helps ensure that they do not again tune in your channel, or allow their family to tune it in–even by accident!

As we look at our measured audience today, we find that it is the countries with virtually no churches that are the most responsive and are tuning into SAT-7 in huge numbers! Why? Because we are able to offer hope, help, and the good news without causing unnecessary offence or turning people away from our message by insulting or belittling what they have believed and held sacred for generations.

So, just because we have the right to free speech does not mean that we have a licence to pointlessly offend religious and moral sensitivities or incite others to hatred. Freedom of the media is a precious commodity and should be fiercely protected, but so that it can act as salt and light in our society, always seeking the greater good for that society.

Click here to learn more about the work of SAT-7 in the Middle East and North Africa.