The Arab world continues to lag behind the rest of the globe in civil and political rights, including press freedom. Despotic regimes of varying political shades regularly limit news that they think will undermine their power. Hopes that a new generation of leaders would tolerate criticism in the press have proved illusory, with many reforms rolled back in 2002. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been deadly for journalists and remains the dominant news story for local and Pan-Arab media, which have aggressively covered the fighting’s violent twists and turns, winning influence in the Arab world and beyond.
Throughout the region, government control of the press varies from the most authoritarian regimes, where media are strictly regulated and harnessed to serve the state, to those that tolerate independent media but control journalists with carrots and stic·s. With only a handful of exceptions, governments have maintained their monopoly over broadcast media, which–in a region where illiteracy remains high–are particularly influential.
In the more repressive and centralized states of the region, including Iraq and Libya, governments own or control all media. Despite the existence of private publications in authoritarian countries such as Syria and Tunisia, the heavily censored, state-controlled media remain dominant, while private papers are often indistinguishable from state-owned publications. And in the autocratic Persian Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, privately owned papers remain hostage to harsh political environments that do not tolerate dissent.
In Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, and Yemen, various independent and outspoken newspapers exist, but journalists must contend with a battery of official tactics that hinder their work: censorship, criminal prosecution, arrest, detention, and intimidation by security forces.
Restrictive press legislation proved once again to be among the most formidable tools to harass the independent media during 2002. Press laws allow officials to control the licensing or distribution of publications and also empower authorities to prosecute journalists, imprison them, or close their newspapers.
During 2002, authorities in Algeria and Jordan used legislation adopted in 2001 to crack down on journalists who tackled government corruption. Newspaper closures or criminal prosecutions were carried out in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen. Media laws empowered courts to censor newspapers or bar the press from covering certain news. In Jordan, authorities imposed news blackouts on explosive political developments. Courts in Iran and Turkey continued to invoke repressive laws with vigor, prosecuting critics and closing newspapers.
In addition to press laws, governments also use covert pressure to keep journalists in check. Intelligence services continue to operate with impunity, intimidating, detaining, and threatening reporters to hamper independent, investigative reporting. Other pressure has been used in Saudi Arabia, where officials fired a group of editors because of coverage deemed too liberal. In Morocco, meanwhile, authorities dissuaded companies from advertising in the muckraking weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire.
In recent years, journalists have been cautiously optimistic about the rise of young, progressive-minded leaders. However, entrenched “Old Guard” forces, economic uncertainty, and fears of political instability have undermined progress, and hopes for media reform crumbled in 2002 under the weight of state crackdowns. Bashar al-Assad’s ascension to power in Syria two years ago, which saw the launch of the first nonstate papers in 40 years, gave way to a government counterattack on political dissent in 2002.
In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II, who promised reform three years ago when he succeeded his father, the late King Hussein, oversaw a sharp decline in press freedom, including the adoption
of a harsh new press law and the legal harassment of journalists. And under Morocco’s young King Muhammad VI, newspapers were prosecuted, while the government
passed a new media law that differed little from the repressive one that had previously been in place.
In Bahrain, political reforms launched by King Hamed Bin Issa al-Khalifa initially augured well for media freedom, but the results have so far been mixed. In a year that saw the country’s first democratic elections in 30 years, the government licensed new independent newspapers but also harassed journalists, adopted restrictive press legislation, and censored the Internet.
Outside the Arab world, in Turkey and Iran, reform efforts did not result in improved media conditions. Despite a series of democratic changes in Turkey, including the softening of some repressive press statutes, prosecutors there continued to initiate criminal lawsuits against those who criticized the army or expressed pro-Kurdish or pro-Islamist political sentiments. In Iran, President Muhammed Khatami, now in his second term, has been unable to implement his political and social reform programs and rein in the conservative-controlled courts that continue to close newspapers and prosecute journalists.
Despotic rule was not the only force that fueled attacks on press freedom. Armed conflict and political violence also imperiled reporters and provided a backdrop for media restrictions. The most dangerous place in the region for journalists in 2002–and the most troubling in terms of press freedom abuses–was the West Bank. During Israel’s massive military offensive there in late March, the army threatened, intimidated, and, in some cases, physically prevented journalists from covering its military operations. Israel Defense Forces fired at reporters, detained several journalists, confiscated film or press cards from others, ransacked the offices of private West Bank television and radio stations, and attacked the Palestinian National Authority’s broadcasting facilities. Israeli officials also expelled foreign correspondents and refused to accredit Palestinian journalists.
On the other side, Palestinian security forces and militants harassed journalists by
confiscating film and attacking reporters. Militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank also perpetrated a number of violent assaults against reporters. In neighboring Jordan,
journalists felt the repercussions of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Authorities confiscated journalists’ footage of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and intimidated others who tried
to record the events.
Three journalists in the region were killed in the line of duty in 2002, all in the West Bank by Israeli gunfire. Several more escaped injury when Israeli troops fired upon them. Journalist safety in conflict situations became an increasing concern for the international media as they anticipated a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, where potential dangers included chemical and biological weapons and kidnappings.
The U.S.-led “war on terror” had a number of negative side effects on local media in the Arab world. Jordan invoked the need to combat “terrorism” when it enacted repressive Penal Code amendments shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and then used them against members of the media in 2002. In Yemen, where U.S. and Yemeni armed forces are battling suspected al-Qaeda militants, local authorities questioned journalists who reported on militant attacks against the army, while some editors said that officials advised them not to cover certain related stories.
There was, however, some cause for optimism about media freedom in the region. Iranian journalists continued to publish amid an unrelenting judicial crackdown. Some Moroccan, Lebanese, and Algerian newspapers remained feisty. When reporters and pundits found no outlets to express themselves in local media, they turned to a growing number of satellite television stations, Pan-Arab newspapers, and Web sites. Several London-based newspapers have become among the most influential in the region.
During 2002, satellite television had the most significant impact on news coverage in the Arab world. The Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera remained the most influential television station in the region. A year after drawing international scrutiny for its coverage in Afghanistan, the station continued to attract both fans and critics with its bold, uncensored news and debate programs. Al-Jazeera has spawned imitators and has even forced some Arab media to liberalize their coverage.
Eager to join the satellite boom, virtually every state in the region boasts a government satellite television station, although few offer serious news programming. Several regional channels–including United Arab Emirates-based Abu Dhabi TV and Middle East Broadcasting Centre–are widely watched for their quality news programming, even if they do not enjoy the same level of freedom as Al-Jazeera. In addition to Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV and Lebanese Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV have been particularly influential because of their extensive coverage of the Palestinian intifada.
But as alternative sources of information have become increasingly influential, states have sought to repress them. Al-Jazeera continued to enrage Arab regimes–as well as Western governments and pundits–during 2002. In what has become a familiar routine, authorities in several countries harassed the station’s reporters and launched diplomatic protests against Qatar. Bahrain barred Al-Jazeera’s reporters from covering the country’s local elections, while Jordan and Kuwait closed the station’s local bureaus. In reaction to Al-Jazeera programming, both Saudi Arabia and Jordan recalled their ambassadors from Qatar’s capital, Doha. In October, information ministers from several Arab countries threatened to boycott the station.
This concerted harassment was indicative of a wider trend in which governments sought to punish those who expressed themselves on alternative electronic media.
In Jordan, former parliamentarian Toujan al-Faisal was jailed for accusing
the prime ministýr of corruption in an online newspaper. Tunisian authorities imprisoned Internet journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui, who headed a news Web site that ridiculed the oppressive policies of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Egyptian
editor Ahmed Haridy, of the online daily newspaper Al Methaq al-Araby, was sentenced to six months in jail for libeling the editor of Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper. Bahrain banned a number of political opposition Web sites, and several governments blocked undesirable content. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Parliament passed a law that imposed tight restrictions on the Internet, subjecting online content to Turkey’s)restrictive laws governing expression.
But these harsh measures have failed to deter people from indulging in new media. There are few places in the region where satellite dishes cannot be used or Internet cafés found, and although cost still keeps dishes and computers beyond the grasp of mose people, the technology does reach young and influential intellectual segments of
Countries across the region are becoming more cognizant of the power of satellite news and electronic media. In fact, many states have attempted to harness that power to influence their own political agendas. In 2002, the Egyptian satellite channel Nile TV began airing 30 minutes a day of Hebrew-language news programming, while Israel launched an Arabic satellite service, and the United States started the Arabic-language Radio Sawa. (Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV already broadcasts news segments in Hebrew.)
Satellites and the Internet are not easily controlled, and the emergence of these alternative news outlets has eroded the information blockades of despotic regimes in the region. In the process, these sources have provided up-to-date news and platforms for open political and social debate. Ultimately, however, people will not fully reap the benefits of media until the political shackles are lifted at home. “Change will come in time from within as political culture evolves,” noted one Jordanian journalist. “Media freedom will be a consequence of opening from within.”
Joel Campagna is a CPJ senior program coordinator who is responsible for the Middle East and North Africa. Hani Sabra, research associate for the Middle East and North Africa, contributed substantially to the writing and research of this section. Nilay Karaelmas, a CPJ consultant, provided important research on Turkey.