I used to think that the Arab term “extending the tongue” [i.e. criticism] was a description confined to use in the gossip sessions of our communities, or when people chastise their children if they say a bad word, and warn them of the consequences of repeatedly doing so.
I now admit the limitations of my knowledge.
I have discovered in recent days that “extending the tongue” is a formal legal conviction whereby the accused are thrown in prison, and this applies to more than one region of the Arab world. For example, the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah recently arrested a journalist under the charges of: “extending her tongue [against the Palestinian leadership], publishing false news, inciting the nation and writing comments calling for the Palestinian Authority to be dissolved”. This charge also covered bloggers and activists who “extended their tongues” through comments and criticisms of the Palestinian Authority posted on their personal pages on social networking sites.
This coincided with Palestinian condemnation of a similar provision initiated by the Jordanian authorities, who also accused 13 individuals of “extending their tongues”, for using critical and perhaps ironic expressions during a protest staged in one of Jordan’s governorates.
So, extending the tongue is an actual criminal charge.
In fact, extending the tongue in the legal sense used in both the Palestinian and Jordanian cases, means daring to criticize the authorities.
This is the blight of the state in which we live in today; at a time of revolutions in the Arab world fundamental human rights continue to be undermined, such as unconditional freedom of expression.
In Syria, a confrontation is taking place between the ruling authority and the citizens, who express their opinions to the extent of being punished or killed for doing so. Today the Syrian authorities have adopted new practices, such as burning the homes of dissidents and activists, and destroying their property…In other Arab countries not plagued by revolutions but not immune to them either, we find that the ruling authority’s injustice is still apparent and takes different, but no less dangerous, forms. The authorities have adopted violence, including the recourse to arrests and torture under the umbrella of the judiciary, and this is one of the greatest civil tragedies in the Arab world, namely when the ruling authority resorts to the law to undermine the right to freedom of expression, instead of to defend it it.
All those who have been thrown into prison as a result of the cases mentioned above have publicly “extended their tongues” and dared to criticize the authority.
In Gaza, thousands of Palestinians wept as they mourned the death of three children who died in a fire, ignited as a result of a candle lit in their home due to a power shortage. Is it possible in the future that we will find many more Palestinians being put on trial for “extending their tongues” if they continue to criticize the governments of Gaza and the West Bank, criticisms brought about by the political bickering between the ruling authorities that has caused delays in resolving the crisis in fuel and electricity, and thus we see tragedies occur such as the deaths of three children, and many other tragedies suffered by Palestinian hospitals due to power outages?
Are the stalled reforms in Jordan not the reason behind people expressing criticism, and thus “extending their tongues”?
In a new era of Arab democracy, should it actually emerge, it is of paramount importance to be transparent with information and spread a new awareness, making this awareness the product of our institutions. If the media, with all its modern branches, cannot exercise this role, then the principle of accountability will not be established, and we will remain confused about what to do with our tongues if there is ever a need to extend them.