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Free expression in the Middle East & North Africa

On Thursday, I participated in a panel discussion about media in the Middle East at the United Nations to commemorate World Press Freedom Day. Other panellists included Alya Al-Thani, counsellor, Permanent Mission of Qatar to the United Nations; Abderrahim Foukara, chief of the Washington Bureau of Al-Jazeera; Ebtihal Mubarak, journalist for Saudi Arabia's English-language daily Arab News; and Ghassan Shabaneh, assistant professor of Middle East and International Studies at Marymount Manhattan College. I talked about the great obstacles to press freedom in the region...

While there are considerable variations with regard to limitations on free expression among the countries that constitute the Middle East and North Africa, the region as a whole faces more challenges to freedom of expression that any other in the world today.

Online

This is amply demonstrated by the latest report issued by CPJ to commemorate World Press Freedom Day. The "10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger" contains five countries from the region--that is to say half the countries on this list are from the region.           

Bloggers in the Middle East and North Africa present an interesting case for multiple reasons. They do not enjoy the relative institutional protections provided to print or television journalists either through their media groups or through national journalists' syndicates or associations. As a result they have in recent years become, with increasing frequency, targets of repressive tactics. The silver lining of the aforementioned lack of institutional protections is that Internet-based journalists have been able to tackle issues that established media simply will not or cannot cover, like the courageous coverage provided by a small number of Egyptian bloggers documenting--at times supplemented with video footage--the systematic use of torture in Egyptian police stations. Bloggers in this part of the world have paid, and continue to pay, a steep price for their innovative reporting in the form of harassment, incommunicado detention, torture, sexual assault, and politically motivated criminal charges. A small number have even been convicted and are serving prison terms; at least one blogger has died under mysterious circumstances while serving such a prison sentence.

Print

Journalists who are critical of government officials or other powerful individuals continue to be pursued through a variety of provisions in the penal codes and press laws of their respective countries. Critical journalists or publications who uncover corruption, mismanagement of public funds or other irregularities eventually find themselves charged with defamation, even when their claims can be substantiated. Such charges are lodged by officials, government agencies or their proxies. It is not unusual for certain journalists or publications to have dozens of such cases, at various stages of litigation, lodged against them. Defamation remains a criminal offense in every country in the region, meaning that if found guilty journalists are not only fined, but also imprisoned. The chilling effect criminal defamation has on independent or critical journalism cannot be understated. CPJ has long maintained that defamation is a matter for civil rather than criminal courts.

There are also a number of countries that are in the process of revising their press codes. Currently Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have drafted new press laws which await approval before they go into effect. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq passed a new press law in October 2008. In all three cases, the new laws are being hailed as more progressive than their predecessors. But the reality is more nuanced and complicated than that. While the Kurdish law has done away with prison terms for press offenses, journalists are still put in prison in accordance with provisions of the 1969 Baath-era penal code. The UAE draft law has also done away with prison terms for press offenses, but has introduced massive fines as high as five million dirhams (US$1.3 million) for vaguely defined offenses, which will undoubtedly prompt self-censorship and will very quickly put critical publications out of business. The severely flawed Sudanese draft law is only marginally better than its 2004 predecessor. Egypt and Morocco are said to be in the preliminary stages of evaluating their press codes with the intent to amend them later this year. One can only hope that they will not follow the lead of the UAE or Sudan.

Television and radio

Privately owned satellite broadcasters have generally speaking fared much better than their counterparts in state-owned media or print journalists when it comes to their ability to report critically on issues perceived by governments as politically sensitive. Uneasy about a gradual loss of viewership to independent or private broadcasters over the past decade or so, as well as critical coverage of inter-Arab political disputes, terrorism, and fiscal problems, governments are attempting to reassert control over the medium.

In February 2008, Egypt and Saudi Arabia introduced a pan-Arab regulatory framework for satellite broadcasters at a meeting of Arab League information ministers in Cairo. The document, titled "Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region," was approved by 20 of the 22 members of the Arab League with Qatar abstaining and Iraq not attending. It seeks to outlaw content that would have "negative influence on social peace and national unity and public order and decency" and would be "in contradiction with the principles of Arab solidarity." Defaming "leaders or national and religious symbols" would also be punishable.

The document calls on each of the member states to take "necessary legislative measures to deal with violations," steps that could include confiscation of equipment and withdrawal of licenses. Egypt's minister of information told the local press last month that the government would be sending such legislation to parliament in the coming months; other countries will follow.

A daily struggle

The impediments to free expression outlined above are by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, but they do illustrate the myriad obstacles that journalists in the region have to navigate around on a daily basis just to bring us the news.

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