There is more to the denial of freedom of expression than outright censorship. The right to freedom of expression is interdependent with, and indivisible from, other rights guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To discuss freedom of expression narrowly as if it were self-contained, and to conceal the issues, processes, and conflicts implicit in its achievement, can be seen as a hegemonic strategy that serves relations of domination. Three sets of public exchanges analyzed here, conducted on and about Arab television against a background of growing international intolerance for free speech, arguably contributed to a narrow, reified understanding of freedom of expression. The first centered on a television drama serial, the second on cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and the third on the ambitions of a privately owned television station in Egypt. Since freedom of expression was repeatedly referred to in all three cases, it might be said that Arab television increased awareness on this topic. Evidence shows, however, that instead of illuminating ways in which the rights and duties inherent in freedom of expression could benefit the viewing public, each set of exchanges helped to sustain power relations by obscuring them.
Heralding the imminent screening of a new series of Iftah ya Simsim (Open Sesame) for pre-schoolers on Gulf television in 2015, the managing director of the show’s production company described it as the culmination of ‘passion and commitment’ on the part of ‘dozens of individuals across international boundaries’ over four years. Joint efforts of individuals and institutions on that scale imply shared objectives. The publicly declared objective of the partner of Iftah ya Simsim, Sesame Workshop in New York, is to offer fun lessons that will make Gulf children ‘smarter, stronger and kinder’, a significant ambition given educational and health issues in parts of the region. Yet the reality of international collaboration made the project even more complex. My study explores the interests at stake in making the series, by Sesame Workshop, the Arab Bureau for Education in Gulf States based in Riyadh, and Bidaya Media, the Abu Dhabi-based joint venture created to produce the shows. I found that the challenge of collaboration was lessened because different institutions were responsible for different phases of the project, public narratives about it played down culturally-sensitive concerns that informed the curriculum underlying it, and widespread nostalgia linked to the 1970s version of the show implied that Iftah ya Simsim was itself part of Gulf traditions.