Like many, I’ve followed the protests as they spread like wildfire across multiple continents. The clip of this incendiary anti-Islam film, “The Innocence of Muslims” on Youtube, the intensity of the media coverage, the recent #muslimrage tweets satirising Newsweek’s front cover, and its memeification — all could not have happened without the internet.
Other openDemocracy commentators have already provided insightful analysis and reactions in Qatar and the Gulf. Elsewhere, talk of freedom of speech and expression seems to have largely focused outwards on the US and also on Google’s removal of the video from Youtube in Libya without any court order. However, recent events should also prompt us to re-examine online censorship in the Middle East.
September 17, I noticed a tweet by
Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Abu Dhabi media hub twofour54, saying that links to
the film had been blocked in the UAE. The UAE was not unique in doing so. Web
pages with the video were blocked in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Sudan; in some
instances the entire Youtube site was blocked.
Internet censorship is not new to the UAE. It’s sometimes surprising - I managed to find an art news website inaccessible because it was called ‘Art Cult’, while the internationally popular blog ‘Postsecret’ has been blocked in recent years. Regardless of which of the two telecoms providerspeople are subscribed to, Etisalat or du, everyone is familiar with the page preventing access to a site: it proclaims ‘Surf safely!’, with a friendly looking cartoon character dressed in Khaleeji garb.
There is some support for blocking certain online content from concerned parents in the UAE. But to others, it can be frustrating, particularly if the website blocked seems trivial and harmless. However, reactions to the content of “The Innocence of Muslims” have been anything but harmless. Residents in the UAE have non-violently condemned the video, and most seem sympathetic to its online ban, not wanting it to stir up any trouble within the country.
At the same time though, the Middle East (and elsewhere preventing access to the video) should be more introspective. While shocking, inflammatory films and images may be used by some to encourage and incite others to violence, trust has to be placed in people. With such tech savvy, demographically very young populations, policing the Internet will always be a losing battle. Instead, we should be encouraging online engagement as a source of diverse opinion, providing a high standard of media education, and seeking ways of harnessing the internet and social media for positive ends.
Unfortunately, certain events in the region currently suggests otherwise. Jordan has just announced a recent law which allows greater control over ‘electronic publications.’ An American journalism professor in the UAE and advocate for greater press freedoms had his contract abruptly terminated in August. And in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah’s Social Media Week, part of a free-to-attend tech conference taking place simultaneously in several cities around the globe, has been postponed just days before it was due to begin.