Real Freedom of Expression is still missing

Change to democracy in many Arab countries hinges on their people being able to enjoy two basic rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to assembly and freedom of expression.

For decades, most Arab rulers have denied their people these rights, using a multiplicity of laws and regulations. Emergency laws allowed for decades detention without trial and denied citizens the basic right to demonstrate. Freedom of expression has been gagged by repressive laws as well as by government monopolies over mass media. Terrestrial radio and TV broadcasts in most Arab countries are still government monopoly full of cheap government propaganda. Newspapers are either totally or partially owned by governments or in the hands of businessmen in bed with ruling parties.

In addition to this direct control, governments use censorship or soft sponsorship to control local media content. Draconian laws prevent criticism of local institutions

Using laws and regulations, Arab governments have succeeded, until recently, in banning any form of assembly, or creating independent parties, unions or other associations. Licensing non-governmental organisations is strictly regulated by governments and is often allowed only when controlled by pro-government individuals.

These restrictive policies have started to weaken due to strong challenges from energetic youths who constitute the majority in the Arab world. Courageous, smart and well-connected youths have been finally been exposed to what is happening in their own countries by following independent sources. The fact that they are non-ideological and tech savvy has allowed the youth to organise without being traced by traditional security apparatuses focused almost entirely on ideological activists.

Over a year ago, the previous government banned all government institutions and public universities from accessing all Jordanian news websites. Jordanian demonstrators demanded democratic change, including freedom of expression.

One of the first decisions of the new government was to lift the ban on all websites of Jordanian public institutions. This week, the Jordanian minister of interior announced that restrictions on the freedom of assembly will be relaxed. Much more work is needed in Jordan and many other Arab countries to reach the coveted democracy.

The battle in the coming weeks and months will be won or lost based in large part on the ability of Arab peoples to assemble and express themselves freely. The guarantee of these two basic rights is a must for the Arab populations if they are to be successful in regaining control and sharing in the decision-making process of their countries.

US President Barack Obama captured the feeling of ordinary Arabs when he said that the people of Egypt have "spoken and their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same".

What happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and the support by the US for this "moral force", should not stop at the borders of Egypt. Other countries and peoples yearn for democracy and freedom.

The time has finally come for an end to American hypocrisy and the double standard in its foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. The universality of human right and not narrow interests must become the standard, not be the exception.

If the US and other Western democracies want to see democratic change in countries like Syria, Libya and Iran, they must be sure that countries like Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain are not allowed to violate their people’s right to assembly and their freedom of expression.