Four empty seats and a shouting match

The 3rd Arab Free Press Forum was four participants short when it started in Beirut on Friday—Syria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia all stopped people from traveling to the conference. Tunisia even sent a government delegation to impose its point of view on the conference, which resulted in a bit of a shouting match.
arab bloggers
During the Forum. Credits: Magda Abu Fadel, Huffington Post

BEIRUT, December 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) — When the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum was opened at Beirut's Monroe Hotel on Friday, there were four empty seats. They belonged to Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan; Mazen Darwish, director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression; and journalist Litfi Hidouri and human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou, both from Tunisia. They were all stopped by local authorities before leaving their home countries to attend the two-day conference, organized annually by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar.

No Syrians

In his opening remarks, Said Essoulami, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom MENA in Morocco, remarked on the missing participants.

"Retaliations such as assassination and imprisonment have been reduced because there are new ways of controlling journalists, such as what happened with our colleagues who could not come," Essoulami said. "In fact, every journalist invited from Syria could not come."

The WAN organization, which defends and promotes press freedom and the professional and business interests of newspapers worldwide, condemned the actions of the Tunisian, Saudi Arabian and Syrian governments in a statement issued on December 11. "The journalists were prevented from attending to keep them from testifying about press freedom restrictions in their countries,"  the statement said.

Fouad Al-Farhan (photo), also known as "the godfather of Saudi blogging," was only recently released after spending several months in prison in Saudi Arabia without charges. He was scheduled to speak as part of a panel focusing on the changing face of Arab blogging, but was stopped when he went to board his flight on Wednesday. 

Friend and fellow Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran, who blogs under the name Saudijeans, did make it to Beirut. Al-Omran said Al-Farhan was not given any reason why he was banned from traveling. "It came as a surprise to me because I thought the travel ban had ended, since he was released a few months ago," Al-Omran told MENASSAT.

Tunisian shouting match

Tunisians Abbou and Hidouri—ironically, Hidouri translates as My Attendance—were supposed to participate in a panel on censorship and harassment facing journalists and civil society activists in Tunisia. Abbou was turned back at the Tunis airport; Hidouri was actually detained at the airport, held in jail overnight and taken to court on Friday.

But all this didn't stop Tunisia from becoming a main topic of discussion at the conference. In fact, a veritable shouting match broke out when four Tunisian government officials—two from the Beirut embassy, and two who flew in from Tunis—started heckling the presentation of a new report by the Tunisia Monitoring Group about the lack of freedom in Tunisia.

The government representatives said that this was a "political forum," and they wanted to know what business political activists had attending a conference about the media.

They were countered—in absentia—by Mohamed Abbou, who prepared a statement that was read at the conference. "Even if they put us in containers and roll us down a hill, we will go on carrying the torch," Abbou said.

Abbou was seconded by Nazira Rjiba (Um Zied), who was recently charged over an article she wrote in the newspaper Muwatinoun under the title, "They attacked Kalima." The article was in support of the news website Kalima, which has been under constant attack by the Tunisian authorities.

"Do not think of us as victims," Rjiba said. " We are militants who are being harassed by the government. We are paying the price of freedom, but freedom is the door for change."

Nearly not attending was Yemeni journalist Abdel Karim Al-Khaiwani, the former editor in chief of Al-Shoura newspaper in Yemen. Al-Khaiwani was recently stopped from traveling to a UN-sponsored human rights conference in Cairo. It appeared that a travel ban resulting from his prison sentence on charges of aiding terrorism—charges that rights groups say were trumped up—had not been lifted, despite Al-Khaiwani having received a presidential pardon in September.

But the travel ban was eventually lifted, and Al-Khaiwani (photo) was able to participate in a panel discussion under the title, Oblique Government Tactics to Impede a Free Arab Press. Al-Khaiwani began by bringing a salute to his four missing colleagues. "I would also like to condemn those who prevent journalists from traveling because they think they can hide what is happening in their countries," he said.

The panelists all mentioned that one of the major problems in their home countries is the accusation of terrorist activity, which governments are increasingly using to silence independent journalists, bloggers, and activists.

"Most journalists are accused of terrorism or of other accusations that have to do with defamation. Other times they are accused of attacking the reputation of their country," Al-Khaiwani said. "The government is using the war against terror to attack journalists and the press."

But he also said that government repression is a sacrifice that journalists have to make for freedom. "Yes, the price is high... but it is not too high for a person who believes in change and equality... There is no value for life without sacrifice."

Ibrahim Issa awarded

Another journalist who was recently pardoned by his country's president, Egypt's Ibrahim Issa (photo), was also in attendance.

Issa, the editor in chief of Al-Dostour newspaper, which Essoulami described as "the most independent and critical newspaper in Egypt," has had his share of censorship. He was recently sentenced to two months in prison for "propagating false news and rumors causing a general security disturbance and harming the public interest" in connection with articles about the health of President Mubarak. He was pardoned in October, but he is still involved in several other lawsuits.

Issa is being given this year's Gebran Tueni Award—the prize, named after the assassinated former editor in chief of An Nahar, is traditionally handed out at the end of the Arab Free Press Forum.

In his remarks, Issa referred to the Arab media as a "gas chamber," and said the role of the journalist is to open the window. 

"The most important thing is to have the courage needed to open a window out of this gas chamber that is the Arab world. Arab states need to stop being cowards, and Western states need to stop being hypocrites," Issa said.

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