Along with their remarkable longevity, the authoritarian and semi- authoritarian regimes that dominate the region have demonstrated an ability to keep democratic institutions, including independent media, under pressure.
Strict authoritarian rule persisted in the notorious police states of Iraq and Syria, where the government controls all media and independent voices are not allowed. In Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, where private media do exist, critical journalists worked under the threatening gaze of the state. Authorities also limited the work of foreign reporters and often prevented news about domestic developments from reaching the outside world.
Journalists in less restrictive countries, however, have taken advantage of the margins of freedom available to them. In Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen, independent or opposition journalists have tested the limits of their freedom, often with harsh consequences. Iran’s embattled press was again at the forefront of the power struggle between reformist president Muhammad Khatami and the country’s conservative establishment. In July, a Tehran court ordered the closure of the pro-Khatami daily Salam, sparking student demonstrations that produced the country’s worst unrest since the Iranian revolution in 1979. During the year, reformist newspapers were the targets of a sustained judicial assault that saw the arrest, prosecution, or imprisonment of several journalists.
Throughout the region, governments used press laws, criminal-defamation statutes, and other legal provisions to punish critical reporting. Turkey imprisoned fewer journalists than in previous years but still prosecuted dozens of reporters and editors under an arsenal of vaguely worded statutes. The main targets of state legal action remained journalists who wrote critically about the Kurdish question, the armed forces, or Islamist politics.
This year, criminal charges were filed against journalists in a number of other countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, and Yemen. Jordan’s Parliament amended the controversial Press and Publications Law, striking its most obtrusive censorship provisions. But the law still permits the screening of foreign newspapers, and prosecutors can deploy a host of other criminal laws to prosecute outspoken journalists.
Regionwide, there were at least 34 journalists in jail in eight countries at the end of the year. Eighteen of them were jailed in Turkey. In Egypt, authorities jailed journalists for libel for the second year in a row (1998 was the first year that CPJ documented cases of journalists prosecuted for libel in Egypt). Dozens more Egyptian journalists faced possible imprisonment in cases still pending before the courts or under investigation. Syria had the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the Arab world with six, the majority of whom were jailed for their alleged membership in outlawed political organizations. Kuwait released three journalists who were imprisoned in 1991 for their work with the Iraqi occupation newspaper Al-Nida; however, two were still serving life sentences.
The absence of democratic institutions and the rule of law fostered an environment of fear and uncertainty for many journalists in the region, encouraging self-censorship. In Algeria, the lawlessness that characterized much of the country’s eight years of civil strife kept serious investigative reporting about political violence out of newspapers; journalists were particularly reluctant to explore the sensitive subject of state human-rights abuses. In Tunisia, where police and security agents have crudely bullied independent journalists, the press has been brought into near-total submission, to the extent that it avoids all meaningful criticism of the government. The coercive tactics of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority, now in its sixth year of existence, have had a similarly chilling effect on local news coverage. Most Palestinian journalists refrained from criticizing the PNA for fear of incurring the wrath of its notorious security services. And in Jordan, frequent arrests and other harassment by security and intelligence agents have persuaded journalists to think twice before publishing news that might irritate the authorities.
Broadcast media continued to play a significant role given the region’s relatively high illiteracy rates. According to a 1996 report published by the Arab League, illiteracy in the Arab world stood at nearly 44 percent, or about 65 million people. With few exceptions, local broadcast media remained under state control throughout the Arab world; meaningful private television and radio exist only in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories (Qatar’s feisty and well-respected Al-Jazeera satellite channel subsists partly on a government grant).
But the continuing proliferation of satellite dishes throughout the region has allowed citizens from nearly all countries to access alternative information and viewpoints from a variety of Western and pan-Arab television stations. The ubiquitous dishes have made government efforts to control information seem increasingly anachronistic. In fact, satellite TV has now supplanted radio as the alternative to state broadcasting in the Middle East. Despite past efforts to regulate or curtail the use of dishes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria, these governments seem resigned to their presence and popularity. Only Iraq has succeeded in enforcing a strict ban.
The wildly popular, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel set the pace for independent news reporting with its uncensored Arabic-language coverage of regional events. Al-Jazeera’s tough reporting and open debates continued to infuriate neighboring governments, while state broadcast media found it increasingly difficult to monopolize public debate. Al-Jazeera’s popularity also posed a challenge to the Saudi-controlled Pan Arab media group, which is known for its docile coverage of Saudi and regional affairs.
Finally, the Internet continued to make strides despite efforts by some countries in the region to restrict public access. Tunisian authorities reportedly monitor the sites that citizens visit and have blocked access to sites, such as Amnesty International’s and CPJ’s own Web site (www.cpj.org), that criticized human-rights violations in Tunisia. Saudi Arabia at last joined the group of nations that provide public Internet access, but authorities have set up a Web-filtering system designed to block content deemed morally or politically offensive. The Saudi system seems modeled on one already in place in the neighboring United Arab Emirates.
Only Syria, Libya, and Iraq lacked public access to the Internet. Today, dozens of newspapers across the region have gone online and offer an eclectic variety of news and analysis to the outside world. Elsewhere in the region, anyone who could afford a computer and a connection found a world of information not readily available in his own country. And the proliferation of cyber cafés in countries such as Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey has wired an even wider public.
Joel Campagna is program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
Karam Tannous, research assistant for the Middle East and North Africa, contributed valuable research to this report.
Nilay Karaelmas, a consultant to CPJ, provided important research on Turkey for this report.
The Freedom Forum contributed significantly to CPJ’s work on the West Bank.