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Egypt leads an alliance to curb the showing of independent satellite channels like al-Jazeera

Arab countries (including those in North Africa) have agreed to allow punishment of satellite channels deemed to have offended Arab leaders or national or religious symbols. At a meeting in Cairo called by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a charter was adopted allowing authorities to withdraw permits from offending channels. The only country to refuse to endorse the charter was Qatar, the home of leading satellite station al-Jazeera.

Correspondents say the satellite channels have thrived on controversy. The often privately financed stations give airtime to government critics and viewers, and discuss issues which state channels would never dare approach, says the BBC's Heba Saleh in Cairo.

At the meeting of information ministers from the 22-nation Arab League in Cairo, the charter was agreed by a vote. The document calls on stations "not to offend the leaders or national and religious symbols" of Arab countries, news agency AFP reports.

They should not "damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values," the charter says. Signatory countries may "withdraw, freeze or not renew the work permits of media which break the regulations".

The charter also calls on broadcasters to avoid erotic content, or content which promotes smoking or the consumption of alcohol, and to "protect Arab identity from the harmful effects of globalisation".

"Some satellite channels have strayed from the correct path," said Egyptian Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi.

He said it was time to confront those who propagated ignorant or reactionary ideas, and those who tried to score points by undermining governments and nations. Only Qatar registered reservations about the charter, but said this was down to legal rather than political concerns. It said it needed further time to consider the document - and so al-Jazeera does not appear to be facing imminent curbs, says our correspondent.

(Leadership (Abuja), 14 February 2008)

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