x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The dangers of a US proposal to ban Arab media

The resolution, passed last December by the US house of representatives, has a definition of incitement that is far too open-ended.

Conservative pundits in the US have dubbed it the "terror TV bill". The resolution, passed last December by the US house of representatives, could limit the ability of satellite channels from 17 nations in the Middle East including the UAE, from being transmitted to American audiences. The bill's sponsors have proposed the legislation in order "to prohibit incitement to anti-American violence". Fair enough. The footage they were responding to, including scenes on a children's programme of a puppet assassinating a US president and a broadcast of a Mickey Mouse-like character encouraging children to take up arms, is both shocking and juvenile.

But the bill's prohibitions against satellite broadcasts from the Arab world may be dangerous in themselves. Its definition of incitement, "persuading, encouraging, advocating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the United States", is far too open-ended.

Whether you are watching Inside The National or Al Jazeera, any credible news broadcast is likely to record the polemics of extremist groups and their leaders, odious they may be. That is simply reporting. Does broadcasting these messages constitute incitement? The bill does not say. It does, however, provide the US congress with the authority to review the content of the region's satellite operators and to brand them as "terrorist entities" if it sees fit. But focusing on the bill's clumsy language obscures a larger question: should the US government be in the business of curtailing press freedom?

To become law, the bill requires the approval of the US senate and the signature of the president. It is likely that enough senators will understand the hypocrisy of preventing broadcasts from the Arab world from entering American homes. Speeches about press freedom delivered by the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the US president Barack Obama should make this all the more clear. In remarks directed at China and Iran earlier this year, Mrs Clinton cautioned that "a new information curtain is descending across much of the world". She added that "the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it". Mrs Clinton is right. The US congress should listen.

Arab media is developing into a more important driver of the region's progress every day. An airing of respectful disagreement with the policies of governments in the region and abroad is part of that development. For this media landscape to mature we might remember the advice of the American journalist Edward R Murrow: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty ... We will not walk in fear, one of another."