The proportion of people who support freedom of expression online is increasing in the Arab region. But the percentage of those who approve of freely criticizing governments is going down, a recent study found.
More than half of Qataris, Saudis, Emiratis, Lebanese and Tunisians support online freedom of expression, but the percentage falls below half in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Tunisia if that freedom includes criticizing government policies. In Egypt and Jordan, officials did not even allow the distribution of questions about criticizing governments.
The study results set up a question about what freedom of expression means in the Middle East. “This is due to the lack of understanding of freedom of press and freedom of expression and is often associated with poor critical thinking and media literacy skills,” said Jad Melki, chair of the department of communication arts and director of the Media Research and Training Institute at the Lebanese American University, in Beirut. When someone supports freedom of expression as long as it does not raise controversy and does not conflict with prevailing beliefs and ideologies, he said, “this alleged freedom of expression simply supports the existing hegemony through silence.”
A Fear of Monitoring
The sixth annual study of Media Use in the Middle East was conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar. “The region is undergoing major events and changes, and the composition of the media is changing and so is the way people use it,” said Justin Martin, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar and lead author of the study. “It is important at this time to learn how people use the media, their opinions of such media outlets and their confidence in them.”
The study examined changes in the patterns of citizens’ use of the media and monitors their attitudes toward them and their preferred media content in 2018. It surveyed 7,635 people, 52 percent them male and 48 percent female, in seven Arab countries—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates—in 2018. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in all countries except for Qatar, where the interviews were conducted through phone calls.
The study revealed an increased in use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, used to protect users from those tracking the websites they are visiting. VPNs also can help users visit websites otherwise blocked in their own country. In Qatar, VPN users increased from 6 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2018, and in Saudi Arabia, VPN use increased from 7 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2018. In Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia, VPN use plateaued at around 10 percent or less.