CAIRO, Egypt — Arab information ministers on Tuesday endorsed a plan that would restrict content on regional satellite television broadcasts, signaling a growing unease with increasingly popular news outlets that often are critical of Middle Eastern political and religious leaders.
Arab journalists quickly condemned the move as censorship. Many said it would be impossible to curb the information revolution that brought events such as the war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into the living rooms of millions of Arab viewers.
With the power to shape public opinion, the satellite channels face constant pressure from Middle Eastern regimes to tone down investigative reporting. Officials accuse the stations of inciting violence, favoring opposition parties and sensationalizing news.
"We see clear lines between freedom of expression and freedom of the media, and the state of disarray that some are trying to promote. And that we cannot allow," Anas al Fiqi, Egypt's information minister, told the special meeting at the Arab League.
The action was nonbinding on the Arab League's 22-member states, and there was little talk of how to enforce the measure. Still, the move put broadcasters on edge. If taken seriously, it could affect more than 400 satellite channels that serve tens of millions of viewers in the Arab world. The region's best known channel, al Jazeera, is said to reach at least 40 million households.
"There is a general sentiment of alarm, especially that the document is so ambiguous and has no limitations," said Salma Salem, a reporter for a popular daily Egyptian TV news program that features live interviews with officials and political dissidents. "In the past, they used to harass us haphazardly. Now it will be legalized."
The new guidelines include "making no mention of heads of states, religious or national figures in a harmful manner; not airing material that incites hatred, violence or terrorism; not airing clips that include sexual dialogues or connotations." Violators could face the revocation of their operating licenses or the confiscation of broadcasting equipment.
The move comes a month after President Bush visited the Middle East and praised several Arab nations for nascent democratic reforms. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two of the United States' closest Arab allies, drafted the proposal. Only Qatar, the headquarters for al Jazeera, voted against the measure.
Lawrence Pintak, the director of the electronic journalism program at the American University in Cairo, said governments don't comprehend the scope of the Arab media and are attempting the impossible. With Arab viewers now accustomed to receiving in-depth reports on corruption, human-rights violations and regional conflicts, pulling the plug could backfire.
"It's like trying to close the barn door after all the horses have left," Pintak said. "Satellite channels operate differently from TV, and this Big Brother-esque will be hard to return to."
On Monday, an Egyptian court fined Howaida Taha, a documentary producer for al Jazeera, $3,600 for "tarnishing the country's reputation and harming national interests." According to Egyptian security officials, Taha fabricated video torture scenes and claimed they took place in Egyptian prisons.
In a report released last week, the international monitoring group the Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt one of the "worst backsliders on press freedoms."
In other Arab countries, journalists face a number of hurdles, including financial fines, detentions and beatings. In Jordan, a press law was amended to increase fines tenfold, to up to $28,000, for "insulting religious sentiments and beliefs" or "fueling sectarian strife."
Some Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have banned publications and arrested journalists.
"This is a very dangerous document," Sayed al Ghadban, a columnist for a pan-Arab monthly magazine, told al Jazeera Tuesday about the information ministers' initiative. "Arab regimes are afraid that satellite media will break through the media blackout that Arab countries have been living in for so long. They are afraid that now people will be able to spot the faults and move against corruption."