EXCERPTS: Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia formed their own club on Friday (12 Dec.), overcoming serious differences in government structure and orientation to find common ground. The Saudis and the Tunisians are aligned with the United States, while the Syrians are allied to Iran - and Damascus has particularly frosty relations with Riyadh.

Nevertheless, the three leaderships agreed on one thing: the need to keep some of their citizens from attending a conference in Beirut on, of all subjects, a free press. . . . . literally from the Atlantic to the Gulf, journalists remain subject to official and unofficial intimidation, to draconian restrictions on the dissemination of even the most innocuous information, and/or to criminal conviction for saying or writing the wrong thing. Many factors have contributed to the legion inadequacies of the so-called "modern Arab state," but perhaps none is so ubiquitous as the determination of ruling elites to silence their critics. . . ..

In an age when radical backlashes against authoritarian Arab regimes have subjected several parts of the region to profound instability, it is not too much to ask that our leaders get with the program. If they cannot or will not institute democratic reforms, cannot or will not punish those who abuse their wealth and power, they might at least allow the media to report the resulting depredations. Those who refuse can keep joining clubs made all the more exclusive by their members' reputation for backwardness.

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