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'True freedom is to respect people and their beliefs'

Vera TellmannJuly 18, 2016

Filmed at the Global Media Forum 2016, Deutsche Welle's Arabic-language talk show Shababtalk, hosted by Jaafar Abdul Karim, offered a lively discussion on reporting taboos in the Middle East.

Image: DW
Four prominent young voices from across the Middle East joined Abdul Karim on the debate: Iraqi satirist Ahmed al-Basheer, Egyptian video blogger Sherif Gaber, Moroccan columnist Mayssa Salama Ennaji and women’s rights activist and journalist Joumana Haddad from Lebanon.

Prior to the taping, the interactive show used social media to ask viewers which topics remain taboo for media in the Arab world. Three subjects were raised repeatedly: politics, religious beliefs and sex.

In many Middle Eastern countries, such as Morocco or Egypt, criticizing the head of state might have legal consequences. While the panelists agreed that politics was subject to taboos, their opinions differed on what limitations existed when it comes to religious beliefs and sex.

With the recent shootings at a gay nightclub in the US state of Florida in the background, the debate got heated as the panelists discussed whether or not the subject of homosexuality was taboo in the Arab world. "The issue of homosexuality is not a taboo, it is being talked about," said columnist Salama Ennaji from Morocco. Yet, the participants agreed that a discussion about homosexuality as such could not happen in every country.

The same was true for religion, al-Basheer said. "In Iraq, criticizing a religious scholar is a taboo.” For Haddad, who identified as an atheist, placing limitations on these subjects was difficult to accept. She commented: "True freedom is to respect people and their beliefs. But a person who does not accept criticism is a person who is neither free nor open."

Although the panelists defined freedom of the individual topics differently, Gaber pointed out the general necessity of greater media awareness and education. "Arab governments have not equipped us to deal with the freedoms we have now."