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.
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.
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
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
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
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.