Attacks on the Press 2001: Middle East Analysis

Bucking a worldwide trend toward democracy in the post-Cold War era, the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa remained dominated by an assortment of military-backed regimes, police states, autocracies, and oligarchies.

A new, younger generation of leaders has emerged in some countries in recent years, inheriting power and bringing hope for political and social liberalization. The 1999 royal successions in Morocco and Jordan, followed by the ascension of Bashar al-Assad to Syria’s presidency in 2000, resulted in some positive developments for press freedom, including the end of the state’s print media monopoly in Syria, the abolishment of some restrictive press law provisions in Jordan in 1999, and more open media discourse in Morocco.

But even in these countries, press freedom was undermined by censorship, harassment, and new, onerous legislation. Meanwhile, in the rest of the region, governments have failed to loosen shackles on the media. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, chief editor of the influential London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, commented that despite the optimistic predictions of some analysts in recent years, the state of press freedom in the region has remained largely static. “We…know that what we are allowed to publish is not what the readers want,” al-Rashed wrote. “The margin that has improved in most Arab countries is just cosmetic and far from the alleged claim of the freedom of the media and political democracy.”

In the more repressive and centralized states of the region, such as Iraq and Libya, the state owns and controls all media and allows no dissent. But such total control has become less prevalent. In Syria, the state relinquished its media monopoly in 2001 by permitting the first nonstate papers in nearly 40 years. While governments still largely controlled local broadcast media and maintained their hold over influential print media, private publications have proliferated.

Countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Turkey, and Yemen, where journalists enjoy varying degrees of press freedom, boasted numerous independent papers. However, reporters had to contend with a familiar battery of official tactics used to hinder their work: censorship, criminal prosecution, arrest, detention, and intimidation by security forces.

Tough press laws and criminal statutes remained on the books and were used to prosecute journalists or to close or confiscate newspapers in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Perhaps nowhere in the region were the courts and media laws used more aggressively than in Iran and Turkey. In Iran, the conservative-dominated judiciary continued its relentless assault on the country’s pro-reform media, banning at least 20 papers and publications during the year. Since April 2000, at least 47 publications have been closed. Meanwhile, journalists continued to be detained and prosecuted for a variety of ill-defined infractions.

Turkish journalists remained vulnerable to a long-standing collection of harsh criminal laws, especially when they tackled controversial political topics such as the Kurdish question, political Islam, or the military’s controversial role in national politics. During the year, several journalists were indicted, tried, or imprisoned, and the authorities continued to use the laws to suspend alternative publications.

Some governments tried to enact even harsher legislation. Algeria and Jordan introduced legal amendments to their respective penal codes that defined new press-related “crimes” and increased prison penalties and fines. In Syria, a new press law provided a detailed guide to what cannot be published, and imposed tough penalties for offenders.

Foreign publications were not spared from state censorship. Many countries continued to ban distribution of foreign newspapers and magazines when they contained news that cast the government in a negative light. Confiscations again took place in Tunisia and Morocco, to name a few.

Security forces in several countries frequently harassed and intimidated journalists, often with impunity. Arbitrary arrests, interrogations, phone calls, and surveillance were used to intimidate reporters in Algeria, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority territories, Tunisia, and Yemen, among others. In Lebanon, security authorities confiscated the passport of Samir Qassir, a journalist with the daily Al-Nahar, apparently because an article the journalist wrote had offended the army and security forces. In Tunisia, the government cut telephone lines and monitored the activities of journalists and rights activists. In Syria, the government reportedly harassed the family of exiled journalist Nizar Nayyouf in retribution for his criticisms of the Syrian regime.

Many serious attacks against journalists remained unresolved. The Algerian government again failed to conduct transparent investigations into the murders of 58 journalists killed in the 1990s, mostly by Islamist extremists. The fate of two “disappeared” Algerian journalists–Djamel Eddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdallah, who were detained by men believed to be state agents–also remained unknown, and the government did not appear anxious to solve the cases.

One year after the drive-by shooting attack on former editor Riad Ben Fadhel, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s promise to bring the perpetrators to justice rang hollow; there was no indication that the government had launched a serious investigation or apprehended the perpetrators. Despite local and international pressure, the Israeli army and security forces absolved themselves of wrongdoing in several high-profile incidents in which Israeli fire wounded journalists while they were working.

Impunity, coupled with repressive laws and prosecution, often had a stultifying effect on press coverage and contributed to self-censorship across the region. In many countries, coverage of regional and international affairs is often of good quality, but journalists tend to avoid criticizing heads of state, government performance, official corruption, grave human rights abuses, and other official misdeeds.

Yet, many local journalists displayed great courage and continued to push the limits of freedom. Reformist papers in Iran continued to publish, while their supporters defiantly protested the press crackdown. Amid increasing government harassment, Morocco’s feisty publications Le Journal Hebdomadaire and Demain Magazine persevered in broaching controversial topics, such as official corruption and dark aspects of the country’s political past. In Lebanon, the top-notch weekly cultural supplement of Al-Nahar, edited by novelist Elias Khoury, continued to set high standards for journalism in the Arab world by tackling topics often avoided by other newspapers, including human rights and press freedom.

Some journalists were particularly savvy at navigating around state censorship. Journalists who were censored in places such as Syria and Tunisia used the international media to express themselves. The rise of several respected Europe-based, pan-Arab newspapers, regional satellite channels, and the Internet demonstrated that government control over information is weakening.

A number of Europe-based newspapers have become some of the most influential in the Arab world. Spurred on by new technologies, people across the region increasingly have access to satellite dishes and regional satellite channels. Networks such as Al-Jazeera, LBCI (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International), and the Middle East Broadcasting Centre were among the networks most widely watched for news and entertainment.

Qatar’s influential Al-Jazeera took center stage after the September 11 attacks on the United States when, for several weeks, it was the only foreign broadcaster in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It was also the station Osama bin Laden used to convey his taped messages to the world. In doing so, Al-Jazeera angered the U.S. administration, which urged Qatar to censor the network for its allegedly “inflammatory” and anti-American coverage. U.S. pundits accused the network of being anti-American, a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden, and a purveyor of anti-Semitism. U.S. media also intensified their scrutiny of other Arab media, analyzing them in a similar light.

Defenders of Al-Jazeera called it a vital and reliable news source that covers news professionally from an Arab perspective. They pointed out that the channel often draws the ire of many Arab governments for its hard-hitting coverage of Middle East affairs. At the same time, Arab commentators and other critics accused U.S. media of hypocrisy, drawing attention to their alleged pro-Israel bias, and racist or anti-Arab news coverage.

One thing was clear: Al-Jazeera was the most influential news channel in the region. In the more than five years since its founding, the channel has revolutionized television news in the Arab world and has set the tone for regional television news coverage, especially for the conflict in Afghanistan.

Spurred by Al-Jazeera’s popularity, governments across the region sought to harness the power of radio and television for their advantage. At a meeting of Arab ministers of information, delegates discussed the need to develop Hebrew- and English-language satellite broadcasts in an effort to sway Israeli and U.S. opinion on certain issues. In January 2002, the Egyptian satellite channel Nile TV began airing 30 minutes of Hebrew-language news programming a day. Israel and the United States, meanwhile, floated the idea of an Arabic-language satellite channel to rival Al-Jazeera, while Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV in Lebanon, which already broadcasts Hebrew and English segments, was planning a full-time Hebrew channel.

It remained difficult for foreign journalists to enter many countries. In countries such as Algeria and Iraq, security forces monitored them closely. Journalists were also provided with government “minders” who restricted their movements.

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, where the Palestinian intifada entered its second year, journalists faced the threat of gunfire from the Israel Defense Forces and security forces. Such attacks again occured with disturbing regularity during 2001. In some cases, evidence suggested that soldiers might have targeted the journalists. Journalists also suffered physical attacks and harassment from the Israeli army and militant Jewish settlers. Authorities barred journalists from covering street clashes and military operations in certain areas under their control.

The Palestinian Authority also employed crude methods of censorship. In one highly publicized case, security forces prevented journalists from covering the reactions of Palestinians who celebrated the September 11 attacks on the United States. Similar measures were taken at subsequent political rallies and other news events.

There were an estimated 4 million Internet users in the Arab world, a figure expected to double by the end of 2002. Though much less widespread than television and beyond the financial reach of many, the Internet allowed access to a wealth of news and information that was otherwise unavailable. The Gulf States continued to boast one of the highest per capita rates of Internet use. Countries such as the United Arab Emirate of Dubai have fashioned themselves as regional hubs for the Internet. In 2001, the emirate launched an Internet City and one of the region’s first online e-governments.

Activists and journalists in many countries used the Internet to disseminate news and opinions on political topics. During the intifada, Palestinians used the Internet to report breaking news and to organize dissent. Palestinian and Israeli activists mobilized support online for their respective views, as did other activists across the region.

Governments across the region have employed various techniques to control information online. The most common has been the use of proxy servers to ban controversial sites. But these efforts seem increasingly futile when savvy surfers evade them by using sophisticated hacking techniques, dialing in to outside servers, or using encrypted sites.

Joel Campagna is program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at CPJ. Hani Sabra is research associate for the Middle East and North Africa. Nilay Karaelmas, a consultant to CPJ, provided important research on Turkey. Amahl Bishara, a CPJ intern, contributed research to the Israel and Palestinian Authority Territories chapters.