Censorship: Abridge too far

    The collision of telco and broadcast regulatory frameworks.
    Sonya Shaykhoun attorney, Charles Russell LLP
    Sonya Shaykhoun attorney, Charles Russell LLP
    The UAE's TRA granted a ten-year mobile TV broadcasting licence to the Emirates Mobile Television Corporation, which is a consortium of government com
    The UAE's TRA granted a ten-year mobile TV broadcasting licence to the Emirates Mobile Television Corporation, which is a consortium of government com


    As the broadcast sector continues to overlap with the world of telecommunications, the respective industries disparate regulatory frameworks collide, exposing the lack of uniformity and clarity for those delivering video content, writes Sonya Shaykhoun.

    We are now in the throes of the Digital Age that began in the early 1970s and is characterised by abundant publication, consumption and manipulation of information, especially by computers and computer networks. Today, means of communication – the multi-functional mobile phone for example – have reached levels that were deemed science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s.

    The MENA region has not escaped the global Internet, Communications and Technology (ICT) revolution on all fronts. The rise of satellite television in the early 1990s shook the region, introducing foreign TV via pay satellite platforms. The ICT revolution sparked twenty-first century Arab private film production and numerous film festivals across the MENA region.

    Consequently, media zones have sprouted up in Dubai, Jordan, Syria and Egypt and the erstwhile government-dominated, regional telecommunications sectors have transformed into private entities and all manner of communications companies have taken root leading to a myriad of novel uses for ICT developments. Now, the ICT industry is booming in the MENA region and the satellite industry continues to flourish.

    For example, Arabsat’s net profits rose by 198 per cent from 2008 to US$91 million last year, it recently launched two new satellites and has plans to launch a sixth satellite in 2011, proving that there is still a great demand for satellite capacity. The abundance of satellite channels and the sweeping reach of the satellite footprint, as well as the appearance of digital television, the Internet, mobile television and IPTV, have all made content available to an unprecedented number of people in the region. Content is now also available through a diversity of non-traditional platforms in the MENA region.

    A recent Informa Telecoms & Media report forecast that by 2014, more than 70 per cent of MENA households will be equipped with cable, IPTV or satellite services with the latter dominating. Mobile phones are multifunctional and mobile TV is developing in the MENA region with telecommunications networks such as Zain and Viva providing content to subscribers.

    With liberalisation of the telecommunications sector came the need for regulation where previously, the autocratic nature of Arab governments obviated the need for regulation and/or censorship in the telecommunications and video production sectors. Whilst the marriage of technology and media has radically improved communications, this convergence has turned the status quo upside down from a regulatory perspective.

    Despite the rapid pace of convergence of media with traditional telephony, convergence has outrun legislative developments leaving gaps in content regulation in the MENA region that need to be handled carefully to exploit the benefits of convergence while maintaining the regional cultural integrity.

    Content production in the MENA region has a long and rich history, even if sporadic in some countries. Film production began in Egypt in the late 1920s, mimicking Hollywood and European trends. The Arab film industry developed haphazardly – often upon gaining independence from colonial powers – as in the case of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Other countries, like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq can also claim to have contributed to the history of Arab film production.

    While Egypt and Lebanon are the long-established leaders of Arabic content, other countries, particularly oil-rich GCC countries such as the UAE and Qatar are diversifying their economies and celebrating their cultures by developing their respective film industries. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are now at the forefront and are investing heavily in developing content and the Emirati film industry. Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) was founded in 2007.

    Imagenation Abu Dhabi, a subsidiary of ADMC, aims, among other things, to: invest $1 billion into feature films in the next five years; develop the Emirati film industry in its totality; and, hot-house Emirati content, talent, filmmakers and the quality of regionally-produced content (such as the acclaimed Bollywood film My Name is Khan). Along with ADMC, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, established in 2007, Abu Dhabi’s media zone, twofour54, founded in 2008, and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) concentrate on developing all aspects of the media industry.

    Likewise, Qatar’s film industry boasts several monumental additions, such as the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, the Doha Film Institute and the Qatari media group, Al Noor that launched a $200 million ethically based fund that will invest in international film projects.

    The recent increase in Arabic content offsets the import of (primarily Western) content, which is often culturally at odds with Arabic cultural and religious mores and poses an additional challenge to regulators as media and technology continue to converge at lightening speed.

    With the development of convergence, the question arises of who is responsible for content regulation in the various countries of the region. In the past, for example, broadcasting regulation dealt with issues of spectrum and national ownership. Converged regulators are a rarity in the global communications industry despite the challenges convergence pose to regulators.

    In the MENA region, content regulation tends to be unsystematic, typically falling under the ambit of politicised government ministries and agencies rather than independent regulators, sometimes rendering content regulation a political and ideological exercise. Pan-regional efforts have been expended to establish a body to regulate satellite content under the non-binding Arab Satellite Broadcasting Charter, signed in early 2008, to ensure that content complies with certain culture and religion-specific ideals.

    In July 2008, Egyptian authorities issued a controversial draft broadcast law that would establish the National Audiovisual Broadcasting Regulation Authority under the direction of the Egyptian government rather than as an independent regulator (as required by international law). The draft law requires, among other things, perceived excessive restrictions on content and fails to establish rules for regulating ownership and for ensuring competition in the broadcast sector and provides for harsh penalties (rather than sanctions and conditions) for those who breach the law.

    Further, although reports claim that there is no evidence of Internet filtering in Egypt – except for a selection of politically sensitive websites that have previously been blocked – Egypt has been particularly intolerant of online bloggers and Facebook users critical of the Egyptian government to an extent that has lead to arrests, a reminder that Egypt is still under the emergency rule that began in 1981.

    Content regulation is taken seriously in Bahrain, too. On 5 January 2009, the Bahraini Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI), obviously a government body, issued Resolution No. 1 of 2009, pursuant to the Telecommunications Law of Bahrain, to block and unblock websites. The resolution requires all ISPs to buy and install a website blocking software solution chosen by the Ministry, which gives the Ministry full control over the blocking and unblocking of websites.

    The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority assisted in MOCI with this initiative. In May 2010, Bahrain had a short-lived rift with Al Jazeera leading to the MOCI shutting down Al Jazeera’s Bahrain bureau for breaching “media norms” and allegedly disregarding Bahrain’s press and publishing rules and regulations. The MOCI swiftly invited Al Jazeera to sign a memorandum of understanding to define the two parties’ major areas of agreement, thus resolving the issue.

    Notwithstanding the MOCI’s recent efforts to regulate content, Bahrain is now planning to dissolve its Ministry of Culture and Information, following the example of Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, and to establish an independent broadcasting and media regulator, the Information Affairs Authority (IAA).

    The Media Law (UAE Federal Law on Printed Matter and Publications 15/1980) requires a licence to engage in most aspects for publishing, such as owning a printing press; printing materials and periodicals; circulating, selling or distributing printed material (as well as advertising and promotional material); working as a media correspondent; or, importing and distributing foreign books and printed material.

    Censorship of print media (particularly foreign media) is a common occurrence in the UAE, to broadcast channels, it is only possible for privately owned broadcasting channels/networks to obtain a broadcasting licence in either of the media free zones in the UAE, Dubai Media City and Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. The Media Zone Authority of Abu Dhabi requires content broadcasters to obtain a licence per the Dissemination Licensing Regulations October 2008.

    The regulations define content dissemination as “the broadcasting, transmission, publication, printing, communication or distribution to the public of any content…irrespective of the platform, technology or other means used for such distribution (including audio, visual or audio-visual media, any form of electronic media or print publication)”. In particular, the regulations set out clear guidelines on content dissemination, which prohibit indecent, pornographic, excessively violent programming or content that could “violate the basic social, cultural and religious values common to the UAE”.

    The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority’s (TRA) Broadcasting Satellite Services Licence Template defines “Broadcasting Code” as “the code on broadcasting standards issued by the competent authority in the State, as amended from time to time”.

    Although the UAE’s TRA granted the Emirates Mobile Television Corporation (a consortium of government companies Etisalat, du, ADMC and Dubai Media Inc.) a ten-year mobile TV broadcasting licence twinning media and communications, the TRA does not actually regulate content, which is the National Media Council (NMC)’s domain. The NMC is one of the Established Councils in the UAE Cabinet, which, according to the official website of the UAE Cabinet handles all media affairs and coordinates the media policy amongst member emirates amongst other things.

    Not all NMC Members hail from the broadcasting sector – it includes representatives from the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the General Authority for organisation of the telecommunications sector.

    Convergence is also a concern for ictQatar, Qatar’s communications regulator (as the “ICT” in its name indicates). Its self-proclaimed role includes protecting consumers and businesses as an independent regulator and integrating technology with the fabric of society. It also regulates “non-operator issues” in the communications sector, including satellite media broadcast regulation.

    ictQatar advocates self-regulation by both broadcasters and viewers and, according to its website, Dr. Hessa Sultan Al Jaber, ictQatar’s Secretary General, expressed this view at a forum held in Doha on November 2 and 3, 2009. While encouraging government institutions to participate in satellite regulation, Dr. Hessa acknowledged “what is considered offensive or inappropriate is subjective, and since satellite crosses international boundaries, it would be nearly impossible to regulate content.” Self regulation is Al Jazeera’s ethos, too; the ten-point Code of Ethics promotes such characteristics as neutrality, transparency, independence, diversity, journalistic values and the defence of freedom of the press.

    Not surprisingly, Iran and Iraq provide extreme examples of content regulation. Iran established a 12-member force to police the internet for crimes of insulting the Islamic system in November 2009; its team members come from the police and from other parts of Iran’s security network.

    Iraq’s new media rules issued in early 2010 by the Communications and Media Commission (CMC), whose directors are government appointees, empower the CMC to stop transmissions, shut offices, confiscate equipment, revoke licences and impose harsh penalties on TV stations for charges of incitement that are vaguely defined. The rules prohibit the transmission of statements by groups that promote terrorism (such as claiming responsibility for attacks).

    Approaches to content regulation around the globe vary. In Brazil, Canada and the Netherlands broadcasters are entrusted to regulate themselves whereas others, like Australia, South Africa, the UK and the US, are obliged by regulators to follow laws and regulations. Content regulation in the MENA region reflects the macro-picture: some countries regulate content very strictly with a politicised agenda; others are comparatively relaxed.

    Because of both the ICT developments that have facilitated convergence and the quickened pace of regional content creation, establishing a framework for content regulation in the individual countries of the region (if not on a pan-regional level) is crucial. What is clear is that transparency, consistency and, most importantly, independence as regards content regulation will become increasingly vital as the MENA region fulfils its aim to become an global ICT industry player.

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