Despite some progress toward peace in the Middle East and North Africa in 1995, for journalists it was a year of murder,
repression, stagnation and setback. For the second year running, this region saw
the worst violations of press freedom in the world. In Algeria, 24 journalists were
assassinated, accounting for nearly half the world total of murdered journalists in 1995.
And Turkey continued to hold the largest number of reporters and editors in prison--51
at year's end.
Algerian journalists, entering their third year as prime targets of political terrorism,
faced an escalation in violence and government censorship. In Turkey, dozens of journalists
were jailed under the notorious Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. An amendment of that law, implemented at year's end after intense international pressure,
brought the release of some reporters but failed to address the central issue: journalists
are being imprisoned for writing about the Kurdish issue.
In Egypt, journalists faced a serious challenge to their right to practice their profession:
Law 93 of 1995. Opposition journalists tried under the new law face prolonged imprisonment.
This does not bode well for the future of the profession in the Middle East.
The Palestinian National Authority's (PNA) actions against the press are equally disturbing,
for they indicate the type of state the PNA may become. The detention without charge
of Palestinian journalists by the PNA's various security branches is common. Newspapers have been arbitrarily suspended for periods ranging from one day to several
months. A flawed law designed to protect the press was hastily promulgated in July
and then ignored by the authorities. The Israeli government, which maintains a stranglehold on the areas under PNA control, is accountable in some cases. But many of the
PNA's anti-press actions are clearly its own.
In Jordan the government has increased pressure on the press: King Hussein, objecting
to criticism of the peace with Israel, has signaled his disapproval of what he deemed
irresponsible journalism, prompting efforts to produce a tougher version of the 1993 press law. In Yemen, where the experiment with press freedom felt the aftershocks
of the south's attempted secession in 1994, opposition journalists work under threat
of physical harassment by undercover agents; independent publications suffer more
subtle coercion. The fate of journalists in Iran, where an important radical opposition
daily was shut down in March, is still subject to the power struggles between President
Mohamed Hashemi Rafsanjani and his opponents.
Throughout the region, government monopolies on broadcasting remain in place. Lebanon,
with dozens of private radio and television stations, remains an anomaly. There are
no signs that its neighbors regard its pluralistic media as a model. Morocco's only
private television and radio stations are owned by King Hassan II's son-in-law. In
the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, with the exception of Kuwait, no critical
media have emerged. In Bahrain, the domestic media's coverage of violent clashes
between the opposition and government security forces adhered to the official line. The new
emir of Qatar lifted prior censorship but soon after suspended a newspaper.
Authoritarian regimes in Syria, Iraq and Libya continue to repress all forms of expression.
The Tunisian government continues to repress its critics and forbids independent
journalists to work in the domestic media.
Some events of 1995, however, should give rise to hope. Journalists from Mauritania
to Iran are standing up for their rights. In Egypt the journalists union has fought
the draconian new press law. Jordanian journalists are braced to resist further government curtailment of press freedoms. Members of the press in Yemen have mobilized on
behalf of imprisoned colleagues. And Algerian journalists continue to report under
impossible conditions. Increasingly, journalists in the Middle East and North Africa,
who realize they will not be handed press freedoms, have displayed a willingness to face
danger and resist tremendous pressure as they work to inform the public.
is director of research and program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Gidron has lived and studied in Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
He is a contributing editor to
World Press Review and has a master's degree in Middle East studies and international economics from
Johns Hopkins University.
a research associate for the Middle East, and
a former CPJ research consultant, contributed extensively to this report.
a former research associate, contributed to the section on Turkey
Country-by-country reports of attacks on the press in this region are available at CPJ's Web site and in the print edition of this book.
The following is an edited excerpt of an October 1995 presentation by Sélima Ghezali,
the editor of a leading Algerian weekly newspaper,
La Nation. She spoke to an audience of journalists, human rights activists and educators in New
York at a meeting cosponsored by Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect
Journalists. The original text of her presentation was translated from the French
by Zohra Kherief.
Much has been said about the killing of journalists in Algeria, and there is very little I can add. Radical
Islamists--many of whom are terrorists--think that killing is a form of punishment
for what they view as Algerian journalists' allegiance to the regime and its policies. The response of the regime is remarkably Machiavellian: It uses these assassinations
as an excuse not
to open a dialogue with the opposition. Indeed, the government points out that what
the Islamists are doing precludes any negotiation, and thus justifies the state's
policy of confrontation.
We know that protests against these killings are being mobilized abroad, and that
these protests are something we need. At the same time, every outcry over the assassination
of a journalist endangers us a little more. Algerian newspapers that support the
regime give the protests very prominent coverage to show that there's support for
the government abroad. And the terrorists know that they will get into the paper
if they kill a journalist. Due to the government's censorship of any news related
to security issues, rebel attacks on army or police forces are not reported, and no Islamists
are allowed to publicly express themselves. Killing journalists, then, becomes a
way for the terrorists to tell you they are there.
It is also very important that Algerian journalists have mobilized to denounce these
killings and to discuss the necessity of reinforcing security for journalists. But
they do not debate the root cause of the assassinations, the situation prevailing
in the country. This silence reflects, in part, Algerian journalism's original sin.
The impetus for a new, independent press in 1989 did not come from dissident journalists
fighting against censorship under the one-party regime but from the government's
decision to liberalize the press. Indeed, the first so-called independent newspapers
were created not by private capital but by journalists who were paid three years'
salary by the government to leave the public sector and establish privately run newspapers.
As those newspapers proliferated between 1989 and 1991, journalists failed to organize to fight for the legal guarantees necessary to practice their profession. Nor
did they engage in a constructive debate on the professional ethics and standards
of an independent press. These shortcomings can be explained by the fact that under
the one-party regime, from independence in 1962 until 1988, real journalism was not practiced.
Newspapers reported official propaganda, not facts and information.
Lacking legal protections and a sense of professional solidarity, Algerian journalists
were in no position to defend their rights when, after it became clear the Islamists
would win, the military canceled the parliamentary elections in January 1992. Most
of the press, in fact, endorsed the cancellation of the elections and the repression
of the Islamists. Only one newspaper condemned the banning of the Islamist press
and the opening of detention camps in the south. And not one questioned what the
government meant when it threatened to prosecute anyone whose reporting could be construed
as an incitement to violence.
The weakness of the Algerian press and the divisiveness within it have had severe
repercussions. Journalists are unable to effectively counter government repression
and murderous attacks by radicals. Response to the arrest of Djamel Fahassi, a journalist
with Alger Chaîne III, the state-owned French-language radio station, is a case in
point. Fahassi had contributed regularly to Islamist newspapers and, for this, he
was arrested in 1992 and sent to a detention camp in the south. He was released later
that year only to be abducted in May 1995 by security forces. The government has denied
holding him in custody. The Algerian Journalists Association did not protest his
arrest. His family and my newspaper, La Nation,
tried to get some support for him. But after La Nation
published several articles on his case, the pro-government newspaper Horizons
ran a story claiming that Fahassi was well and vacationing abroad. No source was cited,
of course. He is still missing.
The problems of the press's own internal conflicts are compounded by the restrictions
enforced by the government. Since the state of emergency was declared in February
1992, information has been tightly controlled. That is to say, almost no information
can be published on what every one of the 26 million Algerians wants to hear about:
the state of war in their midst. Consequently, it's a hidden war. Every day Algerians
are killed, either by the security forces or by terrorists, but this news does not
get out. No information can be published without the approval of the Commission of Information
in the Ministry of Interior. As journalists, we can witness a murder, a police operation
or an arrest but are not allowed to write about it. Any newspaper that tries to publish independent information on security issues faces prolonged suspension.
For the last six months in Algiers, we have heard loud explosions every evening. There's
gunfire, and there are mass arrests. But we don't see these things in the newspapers.
So people know the press is unable to report what is happening.
You cannot really protect journalists when they are just one part of the population
against whom a war is being waged. The best way to protect journalists is for the
government to decide it is time for this war to stop.
The phone rings at 2:30 a.m. in the home of a Gaza journalist. The man on the line identifies himself as Abu Hasan,
his code name. He says he is with the Palestinian General Intelligence and wants
to see the journalist now. "Why? What's wrong?" asks the bewildered journalist, but
Abu Hasan won't give details. The journalist asks if this is an official summons; Abu
Hasan insists that it is not. After some give and take, Abu Hasan agrees to wait
till 9 a.m. for the "visit."
The journalist spends the next hour trying to remember if he did anything, the slightest
thing, that could be construed as offensive to the newborn Palestinian National Authority
(PNA). He taxes his brain, but he can't think of anything. So what could this "visit" be about? Would he be accused of some sort of treason for working for the
Israeli and foreign press, for telling them what's going on in Gaza? Has he written
anything critical lately? Could he be detained on such charges?
Since sleep is the last thing on his mind at this point, he decides to dress and get
to General Intelligence headquarters. When he gets there, Abu Hasan greets our journalist,
tells him he just wanted to meet him, and that concludes the matter.
This story sums up many aspects of the state of journalism in the Palestinian areas
since the advent of autonomy. Just as nothing happened to the Gazan journalist (except
for the nuisance of a late-night phone call), nothing has happened to the vast majority of Palestinian journalists. This is not to deny that Palestinian newspapers--including
the most loyal--have been closed for periods of varying length without explanation.
But in this observer's opinion, the dilemma is deeper than a jailing here or a newspaper shutdown there.
While most journalists are supportive of the new PNA, they insist that their job requires
them to be skeptical. Meanwhile, the authority argues that it is in a very unstable
position, with pressure to obtain funding from the international community (led by the United States) and pressure from Israel to fulfill the Palestinian side of the
peace agreements, regardless of how unpopular they might be. Bad press, the authority
argues, can decrease support for the authority in this tight situation, and if the
authority can't deliver its promises it will find itself broke and will find its partner,
Israel, unwilling to deliver its side of the bargain.
Compared to journalists in other countries, Palestinian journalists are relatively
well off. One doesn't read about journalists being killed here, as they are in Algeria
or South America. Most of the time violations of press freedoms are nothing to write
home about in the eyes of the foreign media. What happens usually is that a journalist
is arrested after writing reports considered "subversive" by a very insecure governing
authority. Since there is no constitution or set of laws in place, no one can guess what might be deemed harmful to state security by a high-ranking official. But
if something is, the journalist is apprehended by any of eight security apparatuses
set up by the authority, questioned/berated and possibly held in prison for an indefinite amount of time (rarely more than 10 days). If the police are asked about a journalist
in their charge, they will usually deny that he or she is in detention. Rather, the
journalist is "visiting" fellow Palestinians who work in the intelligence services
and will return shortly, after a few things are cleared up. Only one editor/political
activist has faced official charges; all the others have been released without charge.
Their peers, and the public in general, are left to speculate on the reasons for
each arrest. Most recently, a top editor in the leading daily Palestinian newspaper,
was detained for a few days for placing a pro-Arafat news piece on Page 8 instead
of Page 1. This charge was never made officially, since there is no law on placing
stories, but the accusation spreads by word of mouth.
As for newspapers, they have been denied publication for a myriad of similarly unofficial
reasons: undermining the PNA's position on East Jerusalem (Al-Nahar,
summer 1994), and publishing an advertisement paid for by the opposition (Al-Quds,
One of the first things that can be done to improve the situation is to enact legislation
to govern media/authority relations. As of this writing there was no Palestinian
legislature, but elections are scheduled that could create one. If the laws are fair and the judiciary is separated from the executive branch, journalists would have
a chance to defend themselves against flimsy allegations, and much progress would
be made for press freedom.
Of course, it is not enough for journalists to wait for change. They have to start
programs to make themselves more professional, to put their commitment to fair and
accurate reporting before ideologies and agendas. In the occupation days this was
tolerated because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Palestinians in general,
wanted to focus on getting rid of occupation instead of internal problems. Today,
this means that journalists who were supporting the PLO before it became the authority
are still turning a blind eye to the faults of the new government and so are failing
to offer constructive criticism during this period of nation building. And journalists
who were anti-PLO before it became the authority still hope to thwart its program,
so they refuse to report in a balanced way.
The perception that Palestinian journalists are still just political activists in
disguise allows the PNA to punish them as political dissidents, not as journalists
fighting for the truth. This is the same reason some international organizations
have hesitated before coming to the aid of a detained journalist.
For journalists to become more aggressive in pursuing serious stories, they must also
be empowered by editors and publishers who are willing to take the risks. So far,
these changes have been slow in coming. Publishers are content with the way they
have done business over the past years and see no reason to rock the boat. The ideals of
journalism or public service are not part of the Palestinian heritage.
Of course the situation has improved since occupation, and no Palestinian journalist
prefers Israeli occupation over Palestinian rule. For the first time, the Gaza Strip
has placed itself on the media map with its own weekly newspapers. The Palestinian
opposition has obtained licenses to publish as well, although at times the licenses
are suspended. And finally the Palestinians can confront their own social, political
and economic ailments instead of focusing completely on Israeli occupation.
In the Palestinian view, the Arab world has a golden opportunity to build a new media
system, one that will be an improvement over the system in which, uncomfortably,
it now finds itself. Perhaps this is what is so significant about the Palestinian
situation, what sets it apart from that of Egypt or Jordan, for example. Progress must be
made while the situation is still fluid. Allowing the current state of affairs to
go on will set it in stone, leaving Palestinian journalists to join their colleagues
in the Arab world in their uphill battle for the most basic press freedoms.
is a Palestinian journalist working with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre
and a former managing editor of
(c) 1996 Committee to Protect Journalsits. All rights reserved. The information in this document may be freely copied and distributed provided that it is properly attributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists.