In a panel discussion with UCLA faculty members, Tim Sebastian, founder of "The Doha Debates," says that Arab governments will lose control over what is said and written in their countries within a generation.
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The host of a BBC television show that is pushing the boundaries of free speech in the Arab world, and changing perceptions about Arab youths, joined a panel discussion with UCLA faculty members on Sept. 28 about the evolution of Arab and Middle Eastern television, new media and public debate.
Tim Sebastian founded "The Doha Debates" as an editorially independent television forum in 2004. In each episode four speakers square off, two for and two against, on a motion: that Muslims get a raw deal in India, for example, or that women should have freedom of choice in marriage. There follows full-throated participation by a studio audience made up mostly of Qatari students, and finally an audience vote on the motion at hand. Beginning this fall, the debate series will be carried on U.S. public television, including KVCR in Southern California.
Cheered by the results of the ongoing experiment as well as by his conversations with courageous, young, mostly female bloggers in places such as Cairo, Egypt, Sebastian believes the Arab world is heading for a new stage of openness.
"In the next 10 to 15 years, these governments will be unable to hold on to the restrictions that they've had. I think these are their death throes, their last-ditch attempt to exert some control over the spoken and written word," Sebastian said at the panel discussion.
Aging Saudi rulers, he predicted, "will shuffle off very suddenly, and a group of very, very young people are going to come onto the stage."
Sebastian and other panelists praised the work of influential Arab bloggers who expose torture and official corruption at high personal risk.
"Yes, of course there's free speech. Of course it's possible in the Arab world. It's just that … there is a price to be paid for it."
Two members of UCLA's law school faculty, Dr. Asli Bali and Professor David Kaye, carried on a wide-ranging conversation about Arab media with Sebastian, moderated by Center for Middle East Development (CMED) Director and Political Science Professor Steven Spiegel. The full discussion is available in the form of a CMED audio podcast in this article and on iTunes.
"The Doha Debates" is funded by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The Foundation, chaired by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, seeks to build human capital through a network of centers devoted to education, public health and research.