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World Press Freedom Review


Overview of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

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In these and other Arab countries, censorship is employed as a method of media management. Journalists are intimidated through violent means, by abductions, beating and threats or through judicial harassment by court summonses, arrests, prolonged detention and exorbitant bail fines. In most cases the lack of an independent judiciary eases the way for rulers to co-opt state institutions in the campaign against the press.

By Catherine Power

Censorship, in its many guises, is pervasive through the Middle East and North Africa, a region where acceptance of media diversity remains a chimera amidst political leaders who view the empowerment of their populations as a threat to their dominance and despotism. The free flow of information and the reforms it may spur challenge the rule of regimes that govern through oppression and an unwavering degree of intolerance toward opposition voices.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi marked his 38th year in power in 2007, having ruled the country, ranked among the lowest in the world for respect for human rights, since 1969. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarek marked his 26th year in power in 2007, while in Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali celebrated his 20th anniversary as ruler. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, also the prime minister and foreign minister of the Gulf country, has been in power since 1970 while in neighbouring Yemen, President Ali Abdallah Saleh has ruled since 1978. The leadership of these long-standing rulers has not been characterised by policies of democratic vigour or openness. In some countries, constitutions have been bulldozed to facilitate claims to power while in others, like Egypt, where the leading opposition party of the Muslim Brotherhood has been deemed an illegal group, rule has been secured through stamping out the competition.

The repressive policies of these heads of state have been adopted, and in some areas, expanded by other leaders in the region. In Iran, where nine journalists remain in prison at year’s end and the opposition press has all but been quashed through successive closure orders, President Mahmoud Amadinejad has proven in his two and a half years of power that the news autocrats on the block can be just as effective as the more seasoned ones.

In these and other Arab countries, censorship is employed as a method of media management. Journalists are intimidated through violent means, by abductions, beating and threats or through judicial harassment by court summonses, arrests, prolonged detention and exorbitant bail fines. In most cases the lack of an independent judiciary eases the way for rulers to co-opt state institutions in the campaign against the press. In the many instances where journalists have been held incommunicado for months at a time, often released without any charges being laid against them, the judiciary has acted as the main instigator. In countries like Oman and the United Arab Emirates, where few press freedom violations are reported, the absence indicates the solidified imposition of censorship policies more so than a respect for independent media practices.

In Israel, where the media operate with a much greater degree of freedom than is experienced elsewhere in the region, worrying developments took place this year. Journalists began to report growing interference from state authorities, and the judiciary in particular, through the imposition of media bans on an increasing number of cases.

These "creeping" campaigns against the press represent a more subtle threat than the devastating instances of journalist assassination and brutality that have been witnessed in the region this year, but their ominous presence should not be overlooked. Whether imposed through a closure order for a printing press, a threatening phone call, or through the barrel of a gun, censorship limits the free flow of information and in so doing limits the ability of a society to evolve and improve its ability to meet the growing needs of its citizenry.

In areas of the region that are torn apart from prolonged and violent conflict, such as in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Chad, and Sudan, heightened security concerns are manipulated by state authorities to limit critical reportage. In Yemen and Chad, authorities implemented media blackouts after journalists began to question the government’s handling of growing insurgency movements in those countries. In Chad, this blackout was accompanied by the imposition of prior censorship, which threatened the viability of many independent newspapers to continue publishing. In Sudan, authorities continue to limit coverage of the Darfur crisis through complex visa issuing processes that prevent foreign and local journalists from travelling to the troubled area. At the same time, officials refuse to speak candidly on the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded within its borders, often refusing to acknowledge the reports of international aid agencies working in the country.

It is in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, however, where ongoing conflict has given way to humanitarian crisis, and that working as a journalist carries the greatest cost. In both areas, the growing politicisation of the media aligns journalists along the divisions created by entrenched factional and ethnic cleavages. Journalists are being targeted for the news they report and the results have been devastating.

In Iraq, 42 journalists were killed this year, all but one were Iraqi, and the vast majority were singled out for execution by armed militant groups. Journalists associated with U.S or U.K-based media agencies were at greatest risk of attack although the growing number of sporadic attacks indicates that few journalists, regardless of employer, can exercise their profession with any degree of safety. While close to 30 of those killed lost their lives in targeted shootings, eight journalists were killed in bomb attacks and two as the result of injuries sustained from violent beatings. One journalist was killed when caught in a helicopter attack initiated by U.S. forces. The culture of impunity that has characterized the murder of journalists each year since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 continued in 2007. Whether it is because of a lack of capacity, or a lack of will, the Iraqi government has shown no resolve in identifying or prosecuting the perpetrators of these crimes.

In other areas though, the Iraqi government has demonstrated alarmingly repressive tendencies in domains that are entirely within its control. A number of policies were instigated to limit journalists’ access to the crime scenes, or to limit discussion of insurgent attacks. In both situations, media bans undermine the ability of the media to serve the public by decreasing the flow of news and restricting important information regarding the safety conditions in varying cities. In a number of cases, both Iraqi and U.S. authorities violated press freedom through the detention of journalists for prolonged periods, often denying media representatives their rights to due process. Journalists have been detained for weeks and sometimes months at a time, with no access to legal representatives or family members. Similar processes have taken place in Iran, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority. Wherever it takes place, the detention of journalists incommunicado is a grave threat to press freedom, undermining safety conditions and intensifying a climate of fear and intimidation.

It is in the Palestinian Authority that press freedom has deteriorated most significantly this year. The escalation of political tensions between Fatah and Hamas led to wide scale fighting and the breakdown of the national unity government in June effectively partitioned the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, making it near impossible for pro-Hamas media to operate in the West Bank or for media affiliated with Fatah to report from Gaza.

The risks posed to Palestinian journalists from aggressive action by the Israel army remains constant and this year saw this risk intensify as the army undertook raids on Palestinian media outlets. A number of journalists were seriously injured while covering Israeli operations in the Palestinian Authority, including one cameraman whose legs were amputated after being shot repeatedly by Israeli soldiers. For the first time, however, the greatest threat to press freedom in the territories is not an external one, as the death of two journalists and one media support worker from inter-Palestinian fighting demonstrates.

Reprisal attacks on journalists seen to be associated with either Fatah or Hamas were carried out through violent means as well as through detention and harassment. As an added pressure, after taking control of Gaza in June, Hamas officials began to impose limitations on the media, dissolving the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and implementing a press card system that would require the licensing of journalists.

The brutal acts of insurgent violence make reporting in both Iraq and the Palestinian Authority a life-threatening job, and circumstances are made even more insecure by repressive state policies. The impact of this ever-worsening climate is that the ability of the media to contribute to peace building in divided territories is sabotaged. Independent, accurate and fair reporting is of great importance in societies confronted by conflict where press freedom acts both as a component for democratisation and an essential element for building lasting peace. In order for this role to be carried out, working conditions for journalists throughout the Middle East and North Africa will have to improve significantly.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, journalists are pushing the boundaries imposed by restrictive polices and reporting on public affairs with growing assertiveness. In areas like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, where the media has been predominantly state controlled, journalists are beginning to report critically and are shedding light on topics that have never been published before. In Yemen, Egypt and Morocco, journalists are carrying out hard-hitting investigations in the face of aggressive criminal harassment. In Iran, Syria and Tunisia where authorities have placed a stranglehold on the independent press, journalist and human rights activists are increasingly turning to the Internet as an alternative space for opinion sharing. Across the whole of the region, where authorities show a reluctance to keep pace with the reforms their populations are demanding, journalists show a resilience in circumventing policies of censorship to report, as openly as possible, on developing events.  

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