ALTHOUGH RIGHTS TO FREE EXPRESSION AND PRESS FREEDOM are enshrined in national constitutions from Algeria to Yemen, governments found many practical ways to restrict these freedoms. State ownership of the media, censorship, legal harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment of journalists were again among the favored tools of repression and control.
In Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia, independent and critical media do not exist because the state controls all print and broadcast outlets, blocks the emergence of independent media, or uses the threat of represssion to keep journalists in line.
Journalists had more freedom in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Turkey, and Yemen. But governments constrained the work of the press via censorship and criminal prosecutions under tough media laws. In Turkey, though fewer journalists were in jail than in years past, a multitude of criminal statutes were used to prosecute critics who tackled sensitive topics such as the Kurdish question and political Islam, or who criticized the military.
In April, Egypt jailed journalists on libel charges for the third year in a row. Magdy Hussein, editor of the opposition newspaper Al-Sha’b, reporter Saleh Bedeiwi, and cartoonist Essam Hanafi were convicted of libeling the deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture. The three men spent most of the year behind bars.
In Morocco, the press was hampered by retaliatory legal action following bold attempts to broaden political discourse. Journalists were tried and convicted of criminal libel for reporting on official corruption. In December, the government permanently banned the country’s three most critical independent newspapers after they reported allegations of the prime minister’s involvement in a 1972 coup plot against the monarchy.
In Iran, the conservative-controlled judiciary intensified its assault against liberal newspapers, editors, and reporters. During the year, the notorious Press Court banned more than 30 newspapers, virtually eliminating the lively press that emerged after the 1997 election of reformist president Muhammad Khatami. Meanwhile, numerous Iranian journalists were summoned for questioning or prosecuted for their work. At year’s end, at least six journalists were in Iranian jails.
Elsewhere, legal devices such as press laws were discarded in favor of subtler and sometimes more efficient modes of control. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority (PNA) continued to censor media outlets and arrest journalists arbitrarily. In May and June, Palestinian police suspended five private radio and television stations without explanation. During the year, several journalists were detained or interrogated because of their work.
In Jordan, editors and journalists complained about the meddling of security services and government officials in their work. And in the Gulf states, which boast many private media outlets, editors labor under strict government guidelines on what content they may publish.
Even in more open societies, the press tended to avoid substantive or hard-hitting commentary about the government. In most countries, direct criticism of the head of state is off-limits, either by law or in practice. In Algeria, the fear of reprisal has kept journalists from reporting on high-level corruption or human-rights abuses committed by state security agencies or the army. Over the past decade, meanwhile, the Tunisian government’s crude repression has produced one of the region’s most self-censored and uncritical media.
Investigative journalists were further impeded by the lack of official sources of information. Official unwillingness to provide even the most basic statistics on unemployment, population, or public services had a limiting effect on public discourse.
Despite the great odds against them, many journalists nevertheless continued to challenge state restrictions, often at great personal risk. In Iran, the press demonstrated uncommon valor in its attempt to push the margins of free expression. Editors and journalists continued to publish despite newspaper closures and the jailing of the best-known liberal journalists. Although conservative authorities had virtually eradicated the independent press by year’s end, Iranian journalists succeeded for a while in fostering the liveliest debate about democracy that the country had ever seen.
In the Arab world, too, a number of brave journalists inspired their colleagues by defying official restrictions. In April, Tunisian free-lance journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, whose reporting on Tunisian politics and human-rights issues appears in European media, launched a 43-day hunger strike to protest intense government harassment against himself and his family. This courageous stand attracted unprecedented international attention to the dismal state of press freedoms in Tunisia and made Ben Brik a regional celebrity.
In Lebanon, newspaper publisher Gebran Tueni broke a taboo by openly criticizing Syria’s controversial military presence in Lebanon in a front-page editorial. Tueni’s risky move helped spark a more open debate on the topic in the Lebanese press and in Lebanese society as a whole.
Displaying persistence and great courage, Palestinian cameramen and photojournalists continued to capture poignant images of violence and unrest in the occupied territories. In doing so, they faced bullets and beatings from Israeli soldiers and settlers, along with attacks from Palestinian demonstrators. At press time, CPJ had documented more than two dozen cases of journalists injured or harassed while covering political violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada in late September. The vast majority of cases involved journalists shot or beaten by Israeli forces.
Across the Middle East, radio and television remained vital media because of the region’s relatively low literacy rates. With few exceptions, local broadcasting remained under government control, but the growth and influence of regional satellite-television networks and the Internet chipped steadily away at the state’s electronic-media monopoly.
Writing about the dramatic impact of new information technologies, Egyptian columnist Salama Ahmed Salama observed: “Ministries of Information, which had assumed the prerogative to guide and censor all that is printed or diffused by the media, to embellish images, and mobilize the masses to serve the ends of totalitarian regimes, find themselves stripped of their power.”
With the price of satellite dishes coming down, more and more people in the Arab world now tune in foreign satellite news channels as alternatives to turgid local newspapers and television. Although Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, among other states, have tried at times to restrict or ban satellite dishes, they are now a staple part of Middle Eastern societies. Only in Iraq is the ban strictly enforced.
Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite channel was again the dominant regional news source and a model for others. Founded four years ago on a start-up grant from the Qatari government, Al-Jazeera has revolutionized news coverage in the Arab world, presenting uncensored reporting and open debate on regional issues and events. “It would not be surprising if in 50 years time, historians count the establishment of…[Al-Jazeera] as one of the most important developments in Arab politics at the end of the 20th century,” wrote one Arab commentator.
Yet the station’s tough reporting continued to spark condemnation from intolerant Arab rulers. During the year, Libya recalled its ambassador from Qatar to protest negative coverage. The Egyptian Ministry of Information urged citizens to boycott the network and threatened to ban Al-Jazeera reporters from working in the country. Several other governments lodged protests, while local media in several countries slavishly attacked the network.
Meanwhile, the local broadcasting picture was not entirely bleak. On the West Bank, private Palestinian television and radio stations have proliferated in the latter half of the 1990s. During the most recent Palestinian Intifada, some of these stations have provided up-to-date news and discussion forums, along with information about public services and sources of aid for the embattled people of the occupied territories. At the same time, many Palestinian stations had to fend off persistent PNA censorship.
The Internet was less ubiquitous than satellite television, but continued to expand across the Middle East, despite official efforts in some countries to censor or otherwise restrict local usage. A large number of Arabic newspapers were online, and Internet cafés opened in many countries. The last two holdout states, Iraq and Syria, allowed public Internet access for the first time, although authorities imposed tight restrictions on the content available to users. In Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, governments restricted access to sensitive information on the Internet via filtering technology that weeded out objectionable moral or political content. However, Web-savvy individuals found many ways to circumvent these restrictions. Moreover, Internet users with the necessary financial means could always gain unrestricted access to the Internet by dialing service providers outside their countries.
Joel Campagna is program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at CPJ. 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 in the Middle East.