Uncensored, panel discusses free speech, media in Middle East

Sarah Eberspacher

Northwestern students were uncensored as they questioned a pair of free speech experts at the Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights and Model Arab League’s spring event in Pancoe Auditorium on Wednesday night.

Jillian C. York of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Anas Qtiesh, editor for Global Voices, a blog consortium, discussed the issues surrounding free speech and censorship with social media, specifically in the Arab world. York, who coordinates research projects to determine the level of filtering on the Internet in various countries, is against government censorship of any kind, in most cases. While many countries in the Middle East filter and block a large amount of media content, there is a certain level of cultural relativism, she said.

“Personally, I don’t see a lot of difference between, for example, the United States and Qatar,” York said. “I don’t think you can characterize censorship in the Arab world as being the same everywhere, because that’s just not the case.”

Qtiesh, originally from Syria, said he experienced significant censorship that has affected his writing and beliefs regarding free speech.

“You truly can’t work there unless you follow the rules,” he said. “What’s allowed today might not be tomorrow-it’s always dangerous.”

A hot topic on NU’s campus for the past few weeks, student group Secular Humanists for Inquiry and FreeThought’s decision to chalk the image of Muhammad, came up at the panel. York said depicting Muhammad is an example of a time when hate speech and free speech can collide. While neither panelist referred to the specific events that took place on the Evanston Campus earlier this month, both described the fallout of a Facebook event page that encouraged members to draw Muhammad in response to issues of censorship in a recent “South Park” episode. York used the Pakistani government’s reaction to illustrate how varied different countries’ responses to such issues can be. Pakistan could have taken down the specific Facebook page. Instead, the government blocked the entire Facebook site, as well as YouTube, Twitter and other social media outlets the page could have been reproduced on, she said.

“Do I think Pakistan should have blocked all of those sites? No,” she said. “My beliefs on censorship mean it should have been kept up so that people could come and say what they think about it-create a dialogue.”

Sarah Malin, Model Arab League’s programming chairwoman and NUCHR’s former director, said she was pleased with the turnout and interest attendees took in asking questions and delving into the subject. While the two groups had set up the dialogue before the SHIFT chalkings on campus, the timing allowed for a forum to discuss the issue without judgement, the Weinberg senior said.

“We wanted an event that would bridge the gap between the Arab world and freedom of speech,” Malin said. “While I don’t want to say I was happy about the events on campus, I was happy we were able to offer a place to explore those differing ideas and opinions.”

That friendly and informal dialogue was a change from the usual spring speaker, said Alisa Romney, president of the Model Arab League.

“Both bloggers were young and interested in new media, so it was a topic that held relevance for students,” the Weinberg junior said. “By being from different parts of the world, they were able to present very different viewpoints on the same topic.”While both panelists agreed the issue is not one that will disappear anytime soon, knowledge of its intricacies is a first step, said Qtiesh.

“Censorship in the Middle East is a very complicated thing,” he said. “And it’s not just the Middle East-you can demonstrate the issues in every country.”

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