The Middle East and North Africa

by Avner Gidron

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.

Avner Gidron 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.

Mehdi Dazi, a research associate for the Middle East, and Marlé Hammond, a former CPJ research consultant, contributed extensively to this report.

Yalman Onaran, 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.



SPECIAL REPORT

Algerian Journalism's Original Sin

by Sélima Ghezali

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.



SPECIAL REPORT

Palestinian Journalism:

New Era or More of the Same?

by Imad Musa

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, Al-Quds, 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, summer 1995).

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.

Imad Musa is a Palestinian journalist working with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre and a former managing editor of Al-Fajr English.


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