Sorry about the hiatus. I’m back in town after a few days in Beirut, and No, I wasn’t there to enjoy the Eid break. I was invited by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) to participate at the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum. I was a speaker at last year’s event and I had a good time there. This year, my friend Fouad al-Farhan was invited to speak on a discussion panel on the changing face of Arab blogging. Unfortunately, Fouad was stopped at Jeddah airport and was told that he is banned from leaving the country.
I was in Riyadh airport preparing to take my plane to Beirut when I received the disturbing news which made me upset. What happened to Fouad reminded me with other good people in this country also banned from traveling despite what they have contributed to this nation. People who sacrificed their freedom to promote free speech, human rights and justice. It is truly sad that such people are treated this way, especially in these times that carried the signs of reform and hope for a better future.
However, Saudi Arabia was not alone in this shameful act. Syria and Tunisia followed suit by banning two journalists and a human rights activist from traveling to attend the event. In his opening remarks, Timothy Balding, CEO of WAN, thanked the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression. Of course this is not surprising. According to the latest Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by RSF, the three countries ranked 143, 161 and 159 out of 173.
Now coming to the forum’s sessions, the first one dealt with new tactics used by governments and the judiciary to impede and sanction the independent press. In his introduction, the moderator described these new tactics as oblique or subtle. But Ibrahim Essa, editor-in-chief of Al Dastour daily in Egypt refused such description, saying the Arab governments are not cleaver enough to employ such tactics. “I think Arab governments are stupid and repressive and they don’t need to resort to oblique tactics. Our governments don’t need to resort to oblique tactics because they are blunt,” he added.
The second session, on which Fouad was supposed to speak, focused on the Arab blogging scene. Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, the three presenters are all living and writing from outside their countries. Syrian blogger Mohammed al-Abdullah talked about restrictions on the internet in his country and the evolution of the Syrian blogosphere. He said the bloggers have become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet. Mohammed left Syria after being arrested twice and facing a third arrest (his father and brother are both in jail).
Sami Ben Gharbia, as usual, was awesome. He talked about Tunisia’s sophisticated internet blocking apparatus, and how bloggers and activists have used Web 2.0 technologies to find and use innovative ways around the system.
But I have to say that it was Kizzie Shawkat, the blogger from Sudan, that I felt I could relate to her story the most. Kizzie started blogging because she had no venue to express her opinion, but quickly found herself in a role where she was providing a view of her country from a different perspective from official sources. I agree with her that blogging has become an important forum for social activism, and I think this could lead the way for other kinds of activism in the future. “You have to allow people to express themselves and we’re not used to doing that,” she concluded.
While the third discussion panel of the day that addressed editorial policies, trends and innovations in Arab newsrooms was not particularly interesting to me, the first day of the conference ended with much drama as four Tunisian government officials interrupted the presentation of a new report by the Tunisia Monitoring Group about the lack of freedom in Tunisia. The Tunisian officials broke into a shouting match with the speakers and other attendees who found themselves quite amused by those officials who shamelessly embarrassed themselves.
The second day of the conference had only one panel which discussed the business of newspaper publishing in the Arab World. Later on the day, we witnessed the ceremony of the Gebran Tueni Award. This year’s prize was handed out to Ibrahim Essa, who was recently pardoned by his country’s president, but still facing 32 lawsuits.
Away from the conference, and although Fouad’s travel ban left a dark shadow on the trip, it was as always good to be back to Beirut and meet friends and fellow bloggers. The city was filled with tourists and visitors, many of them Saudis, but I avoided hanging out in their favourite spots. I want to thank my friend Buthaina for taking me to the Comedy Night show, where Mario Bassil and his colleagues entertained us for more than 2 hours and made fun of almost every single Lebanese politician. I want also to thank my friend Alex for the good times, especially at Club Sociale in Gemayzie where we enjoyed a lovely performances by Hiba Mansouri and Zeid Hamdan aka shift Z.
Finally, I want to leave you with this interesting column (Arabic) by Yahia al-Ameer. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.