This is a conflict without aircrafts or explosions; it is a battle of morality and the law. Within it there are many lessons of interest for our region, a region which believes that freedom is merely emancipation from restrictions, and that laws do not provide the framework for the freedom of the individual, society and the media! Here I am talking about the battle of Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, after the couple filed a lawsuit against a French magazine that had violated their privacy by publishing explicit pictures of the Princess while they were on holiday in a private villa in France. A French court has ordered that the magazine must return all pictures of the Prince and Princess within 24 hours and not republish any of them, and this is a ruling that will open the door to further legal action. Alongside the French court’s ruling, there are many important lessons to be learned from this story. First and foremost, the British press decided not to publish these pictures because they were deemed not to be in the public interest, from a purely judicial angle in accordance with British publishing laws. The couple were on a private holiday, in a private villa and not in a public place, just like any other couple. It was a very intimate setting violated by an intruder in order to sell pictures, so how could it ever be argued afterwards that the photographer was serving the public interest?
What concerns us, as Arabs, in this story is that Western democratic societies, which advocate freedom, have established ethical and legal procedures for themselves. There is no sense of chaos, and the media – being the powerful tool that it is – must not be abused, used to blackmail or defame, or exploited to draw narrow individual or commercial benefits. In Britain, we have seen a judicial and political battle against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and the media there, like any institution or authority, is subject to standards, ethics and controls. In the West there are societal institutions to entrench these concepts, and the media does not attempt to spark random hostilities or keep pace with the street as happens in our region, in some cases more than others. Worse still, of course, is what is happening in the Arab social network domain, on Twitter and Facebook, where impunity and unaccountability reign in the name of freedom and reform. This is not right, and it is strange that the laws governing the use of these social networks – established by the companies that own them – are often harsher than the procedures of most Arab ministries of information, but who ever reads them?!
What our region is witnessing is a state of chaos and moral collapse; a moral assassination that is just as damaging as its physical equivalent, without any proof and without anyone paying a price. Worse still is that we find academics and government officials – and the worst example of this is happening in Saudi Arabia unfortunately, along with some other Arab states – writing shameful words in their own names and disseminating the rhetoric of hatred, but still going unpunished. This cannot be considered freedom in any way. British law, for example, punishes even football fans for writing offensive messages on Twitter, so how can the other issues I referred to not be punishable by law, especially when we see academics using abhorrent language, journalists publishing the most despicable words, or legal advisors broadcasting hateful rhetoric?
Therefore, it is important for us to follow the legal battle of the Prince and his wife, in the hope that we remember that freedom comes with responsibility, and that there must be legal deterrents and moral procedures in place in our societies. Here I am not talking about a political framework but rather a moral one, with the participation of institutions and the media itself, in order to protect all our values and rights.