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Posted On: 5 June 2011 02:05 pm
Updated On: 12 November 2020 02:11 pm

Doha Debates ‘holding a torch for free speech’

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As young people around the Middle East and North Africa continue to find their voice, Doha Debates has continued to follow developments in the region and present experts and members of the public with the opportunity to discuss the situation and air their opinions on how the future might play out. Last week’s debate, focussing on resistance to the Arab Spring, was the last in the current series, and saw a primarily young audience express their confidence in the uprisings around the region and their belief in the strength of people power. Following the conclusion of the series, Gulf Times spoke to Doha Debates chairman, Tim Sebastian, to find out how things have changed since he arrived in Doha some seven years ago, and to get his take on the political uprisings in the region. “This series has been dominated by the Arab Spring which has provided us with a huge amount to talk about – this is the most momentous change for more than half-a-century so we have tried to be at the centre of it as much as possible,” he said, referring to debates in Cairo and Tunis as well as student link ups throughout the region. “I think events have vindicated what we are doing – we have held a torch for free speech in a region that hasn’t had any – now there is quite a lot of free speech and you are hearing the voices of people who want change, and you are hearing them much louder,” he said, “and that’s important.” “Now the space for debate is wider, and it is more important than ever that we continue to reflect different shades of opinion and that people get the chance to probe, enquire question and argue the people that would represent them in a democratic transition,” added Sebastian. Whilst people throughout the region have taken to the streets to protest against governments and to demand basic human rights, Sebastian noted that Gulf citizens seem to have been much happier to accept the present situation. “You’ve found much more complacency I think in the Gulf – here they seem much more complacent about life,” he said. However, one Gulf country which has witnessed protests and violence is Bahrain, and Sebastian was clear on his thoughts regarding events in that particular Gulf state. “I think people are very scared to speak out about Bahrain, particularly since Qatari troops were involved in going there in what they called ‘an operation to restore order’,” he said. “But the West has been very clear that excessive violence has been used in Bahrain, and it was condemned recently by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who called the level of violence ‘unacceptable,’ noted Sebastian. “I think in the West there was huge shock about what the Bahrainis had done – I think people were shocked to see Bahrain treating its protesters like that,” he said. Whilst many aspects of the ongoing revolutions and demonstrations in the region are shocking and tragic, there is also a huge element of hope and optimism involved, and Sebastian is obviously excited by unfolding events. As a consistent champion of basic human rights and freedoms, he has been inspired by the resolve of people who will no longer accept their fate as oppressed. “I think this is full of examples of people who have just got to a stage where they won’t take it anymore,” he said, referring to conversations he has held with other journalists throughout the region. Sebastian spoke about a Tunisian man who told him that people had simply woken up to realise that they lived in “a lousy country,” and decided to change their situation, willing to sacrifice their lives if necessary. He also mentioned an Egyptian journalist in his fifties, who had been so incensed by events in Tahrir square that he had been driven to violence for the first time in his life – an indication of the frustration felt by people on the streets of Egypt and elsewhere. “If people had to go out on the streets and risk bullets and beatings, then they were willing to do it,” he noted. Sebastian singled out the debate in Tunis as the highlight of the recent series, referring to the reaction of one particular young Tunisian as one of the high points in the life of the Doha Debates. “He told me, ‘this is the first free debate we have had in this country for 25 years – you cannot imagine how much that means to us,’ and actually that was one of the best things we’ve done, it felt like we had done something useful,” he explained. Looking ahead, Sebastian said that the future of Doha Debates will be shaped by developments in the region. “The region is changing so fast it’s impossible to say - I hope we will be around to follow it and to look at all the different shades of opinion during and following elections in the region,” he stated. “At the heart of debate is accountability, that’s why it’s so central to a free and democratic society,” he argued. As the programme has grown, Sebastian believes that the audience participating in the debates has also grown and developed, although in his opinion there is still room for more openness and freedom of speech. “I think people are much more willing to express their opinions and to argue with the experts and each other, but I still feel there is a little reticence and fear at times,” he said. “It takes a long time to take the fear out of peoples’ psyche, but hopefully we have made some progress in that direction,” he added.