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Opinion: A right to lampoon Arab leaders

Kings of Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia could speak more freedom into the law with a single royal statement.

On the outskirts of Cairo, a Rushmore-like bust of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, far left, and a number of Egyptian Nobel laureates. Public criticism of Mubarak can draw a years-long prison sentence in Egypt. (Sara Hesham Zayed/GlobalPost)

CAIRO, Egypt — Every Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa has laws or policies criminalizing speech that questions or offends the head of state, according to data from Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. By the time young journalists in Arab countries tackle their first reporting assignment, they’re well aware of this admonition: Don’t touch the folks at the top.

A blogger from Alexandria is serving a four-year prison sentence for insulting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the Islamic faith. In October, a Moroccan cartoonist and his publisher were given three-year suspended prison sentences and ordered to pay more than $360,000 for “failing to accord due respect to a member of the royal family,” after publishing a cartoon satirizing the king’s cousin. Even in Lebanon, roundly considered the most progressive Arab country, a journalist was fined more than $30,000 in the country’s publications court in 2007 for ridiculing the Lebanese president.

Perhaps worse from a Western perspective is the fact that in Iraq criticizing the country’s leaders is even more fiercely criminalized. “Iraqi laws,” writes Freedom House in a 2009 report, “allow for fines and up to seven years in prison for anyone who insults the parliament, the government, or public authorities.” These are wholly rotten laws in a fledgling “democracy.”

Expanding speech freedom in a Mideast minute

Given human rights’ trends in this part of the world, the fact that Arab heads of state persecute their critics may not seem novel. What is interesting to consider, though, is that, with a single utterance, any of these Arab leaders could decriminalize speech scrutinizing them and their policies.

Unlike entrenched laws in Arab countries demanding government licensure for journalists or constitutional provisions criminalizing criticism of Islam, laws declaring Arab leaders unassailable could be made meaningless tomorrow morning if the autocrats in question emerged from their satin sheets and reached for the phone.

I was thinking about this recently while I listened to Queen Rania of Jordan give a speech in Cairo. Rania is modernity incarnate. She looks like a Parisian runway model, speaks seamless English and cares deeply about meaningful reforms in Arab countries. But Jordan, although progressive compared to most Arab countries, is a police state in which royals and intelligence forces, not citizens, wield power.

When I wasn’t dazzled listening to Jordan’s stunning queen, I found myself asking her in my head, “You care so much about modernizing Jordan, correcting the worldwide image of the 21st-century Arab, and bringing more freedom to your people. Why not stand with your husband and announce, ‘Journalists can criticize, even ridicule, the first family and our policies’”? This would give Jordanians more say over their future, eliminate one of Jordan’s outmoded laws, and set a needed precedent for other Arab states.