The members of the International Press Institute (IPI), meeting at their 65th Annual General Assembly during the IPI World Congress on March 21, 2016 in Doha, Qatar, adopted by unanimous vote a resolution calling on the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to respect the fundamental human rights of free expression and media freedom in both law and practice.
All GCC countries except for Saudi Arabia guarantee freedom of expression in their constitutions. Unfortunately, these guarantees remain the equivalent of an unfulfilled promise. While incremental liberalisation can be occasionally seen in some GCC countries and while the region is home to a number of vibrant news outlets, local journalism continues to operate under official censorship as well as heavy self-censoring pressures. Journalists who publish stories that cross certain red lines, especially in relation to government or religious matters, are subject to intimidation, harassment, arrest, imprisonment and, in some cases, torture.
IPI members called upon GCC authorities to immediately release all individuals held for exercising their right to freedom of expression. At least five journalists or bloggers are currently being held in Bahrain and seven in Saudi Arabia, including the blogger Raif Badawi. Members specifically called on World Congress host Qatar to free the poet Mohammed Al-Ajami.
IPI members urged GCC countries to end the cynical abuse of public order and state security laws to punish critical journalism. They also called for the abolition of all criminal defamation laws and blasphemy laws, as well as any criminal provisions protecting the reputations of the state or heads of state. Such provisions do not comply with international standards on freedom of expression and continue to be exploited to silence legitimate public debate.
Finally, IPI members expressed alarm over growing threats to online freedom of expression in the GCC region, including through content filtering, restrictive cybercrime laws and onerous website registration requirements. IPI Members accordingly called on GCC governments to respect their citizens’ right to share and access information through the Internet.
IPI members further noted that they remain open to engage in dialogue with the governments of GCC member states should they indicate a serious desire to make improvements in the free expression and press freedom situations in their countries.