Arab Media Mum on BlackBerry Controversy

Arab Media Mum on BlackBerry Controversy

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When the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia threatened to ban the data services on BlackBerry phones, it made frontpage news in The New York Times. But the silence in the Arab media of the region that would be affected by the ban was deafening.

Although this decision immediately affected 500,000 subscribers in UAE and 700,000 Saudis, it was barely mentioned in the media of both countries. The Saudi government has since backed away from the threat, citing “progress” in talks with Research in Motion (R.I.M), the makers of the BlackBerry. UAE is threatening to curtail BlackBerry’s corporate service come October, if they fail to reach any agreement.

The obvious reason for the lack of coverage is the fact that it was a decision taken by the government, which makes it off limits for open discussion. And the decision came with the ultimate governmental trump card: national security. The government claims it needs access to the messages in order to fight terrorism. That effectively squelched any discussion there might have been in the media. But the undeclared gag order was not limited to the two countries. The more liberal media markets such as Lebanon and Kuwait, and to some extent Egypt, were also relatively silent on the issue.

The issue did spark an instant pan-Arab storm on the internet, especially on social networks like Facebook, Paltalk and MySpace. It rapidly became the prime subject of blogs, messages and e-mails, and created waves of rumors and predictions about the future of internet communications. However, the front pages of daily newspapers and magazines carried the usual news coverage of the comings and goings of heads of states, alongside the standard political and celebrity newsbeats.
But when the U.S State Department expressed concerns about the decision, calling it a “dangerous precedent,” the issue finally made its way to the papers. Now it could be reported on as a political issue, throwing in a new sacred element: national sovereignty.

The first salvo from the Arabic language media came when the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, issued a sharp e-mail response to the State Department, calling the comments “disappointing” and contradicting the U.S. government’s own approach to telecommunications regulation. “Importantly, the UAE requires the same compliance as the U.S. for the very same reasons: to protect national security and to assist in law enforcement,” Al-Otaiba said.

One of the well-known Saudi liberal commentators, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, tagged the official line when he posed the issue in his column as a question: “Do you want BlackBerry or Security?” He said that the “company (R.I.M) allows the governments of Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. what it denies to other governments in the name of protecting privacy.”

The only exception to the lack of coverage was the London-based Arabic news website Elaph.com. It published several reports and follow-ups from around the region, and conducted a survey for its readers, reporting that a large majority of participants (62.83%) opposed the decision as an infringement on personal liberties, while the rest (37.17%) considered it a necessary step for national security.

Obviously this is not the first-of-its-kind issue for Arab media, nor will it be the last. But it is definitely more proof that governments in the region remain the biggest brother of all.