Attacks on the Press 2003: Middle East and North Africa Analysis

War and political violence drew hundreds of journalists to the Middle East in 2003 for what proved to be a series of relentlessly dangerous assignments. The U.S.-led war in Iraq was one of the most heavily covered conflicts in modern history–and one of the deadliest for journalists. Thirteen reporters died from hostile acts, both during and after the conflict, while several more died from illnesses or accidents. The sources of danger were varied and often unpredictable. At least four were killed by U.S. fire, three on the same day, April 8, when the shelling of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel killed two journalists and an air strike on the Baghdad bureau of the Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera killed another. Four journalists embedded with U.S. troops were killed by Iraqi fire. Still others were killed by land mines or died in suicide bombings.

The postwar environment has proved just as hazardous. Although journalists generally have not been singled out as targets, they have nevertheless had to cope with banditry, crime, firefights, and deliberate attacks against international organizations, leading even the most battle-hardened correspondents to call Iraq the most dangerous assignment they have ever experienced.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, journalists also faced danger. In Israel and the Occupied Territories, including those under the Palestinian National Authority, journalists continued to document violence, often at great peril. Until the Iraq war, the most dangerous place to work as a journalist in the Middle East was the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where journalists have repeatedly braved bombs, bullets, and various forms of harassment from the Israeli army and Palestinian militants since the intifada erupted in 2000. Nearly lost among the headlines from Iraq were the shocking deaths of Associated Press Television News cameraman Nazih Darwazeh and freelance cameraman James Miller. Both men were killed by Israeli army gunfire in the Occupied Territories within a two-week span.

As the Darwazeh and Miller cases demonstrated, Israeli forces’ gunfire was a major threat to photojournalists and reporters working in the Occupied Territories. Journalists also had to grapple with tough restrictions on their freedom of movement, which often hampered their ability to cover stories. Israeli soldiers were by no means the only threat. With the Palestinian Authority decimated by Israeli military assaults, Palestinian militias have filled the void, threatening journalists and destroying media equipment.

Despite looming danger and threats of physical harm, correspondents were adept at providing news and information when it mattered most, during a crisis. The war in Iraq was a major turning point for Arab media. Twelve years after the first Gulf War, when all eyes were glued to CNN and its live coverage from Baghdad, a bevy of new Arab satellite news channels were on the ground in 2003, breaking news and captivating viewers. The emergence in recent years of Al-Jazeera, the revamped United Arab Emirates-based Abu Dhabi TV and the pan-Arab Al-Arabiyya demonstrated that despite some weak points, Arab media were a force to be reckoned with in terms of spot news reporting and political debate. Long-established pan-Arab newspapers based in London have also contributed to the mix. Together, these new Arab media have provided varying degrees of uncensored coverage of regional events, serving as a platform for discussion otherwise unavailable in the regional media. Some, most notably Al-Jazeera, have pushed the boundaries of free expression by presenting dissident political views and airing criticism of Arab governments.

But the view beyond pan-Arab television and newspapers was altogether different. Local print and broadcast media have yet to break free from the yoke of government control. Autocratic governments continued to exert tremendous leverage over their national media, stifling the emergence of truly representative, independent news outlets. State ownership of print media is increasingly rare, but authorities in various Arab countries have crafted efficient systems of carrots and sticks to keep journalists in line.

Repressive press laws and penal codes are common throughout the region and provide the legal framework for what journalists can and cannot write. They also give governments broad powers to sanction dissenting media through criminal prosecution, the closure of newspapers, and the detention or imprisonment of journalists.

In Morocco–a country often recognized for its political moderation and relative tolerance for critical media–authorities jailed maverick editor Ali Lmrabet for eight months because of critical articles and cartoons he published about the country’s young monarch, King Mohammed VI. Several other journalists were arrested or imprisoned under antiterrorism legislation that was enacted shortly after the multiple suicide bombings that rocked Casablanca in May.

In nearby Tunisia, which operates largely as a police state with little criticism from the West, Internet journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui spent more than 17 months behind bars for his satirical Web postings about the government. He was released in November, just prior to official visits to Tunis by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and French President Jacques Chirac.

The imprisonments of Lmrabet and Yahyaoui were not the only cases of media harassment in the region in 2003. Cognizant of their international image, some governments in the Middle East and North Africa have become less inclined to employ blunt repression against the media. Instead, many use indirect forms of pressure to stifle critical views, such as Saudi Arabia, which has quietly dismissed columnists; Morocco, which has discouraged advertising in hard-hitting newspapers; and Algeria, which controls the printing company many publications use. Cronyism, cash in exchange for coverage, and cozy relationships between editors and officials are also common behind-the-scenes practices that have neutered the media.

The ever present security services of the region continued to vex journalists and impede independent reporting. Security forces harassed journalists and often controlled unions that were ostensibly charged with defending journalists’ interests.

The press received a jolt, however, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime in April, which produced an explosion of new media in Iraq, where, for the first time in decades, journalists enjoyed the freedom to publish what they wished. Despite this new openness, there were worrying indicators about the future of media freedom, with U.S. authorities and the new Iraqi Governing Council penalizing local news outlets with closures and detaining and harassing working journalists in the field.

The aftermath of the Iraq war kindled debate about whether Hussein’s fall would serve as a catalyst for political reform–and, by extension, greater media freedoms–throughout the region. However, by year’s end, governments seemed unprepared to make changes.

Some did take a number of positive steps to expand press freedom during 2003, but they were cosmetic when viewed against overall conditions. For example, while Tunisia approved the country’s first privately owned radio station and boasted of its support for a free press, security forces there continued to harass and prosecute independent journalists. In 2002, the tiny archipelago nation of Bahrain licensed the independent daily Al-Wasat, but in 2003 the government took the paper’s editor to court for violating the country’s regressive press law. Three years ago, Syria licensed the country’s first private and party newspapers in 40 years. However, in 2003 authorities closed the country’s most independent newspaper, the satirical weekly Al-Domari. The Jordanian government announced the imminent licensing of private broadcast media and abolished a controversial press law, but the security forces retained their tight grip on the media, blunting aggressive domestic reporting by keeping close tabs on journalists and monitoring their activities. Saudi Arabia allowed the creation of the country’s first journalists’ association but cracked down on the press by dismissing writers when they boldly criticized religious militancy in the kingdom.

Amid seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a small group of locally based independent journalists challenged the status quo and offered hope for the future. In Morocco, courageous journalists such as Aboubakr Jamai, editor of the groundbreaking weeklies Le Journal Hebdomadaire and Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, and jailed editor Lmrabet remained uncompromising in their attempts to hold public officials accountable. Risk-takers such as Tunisian Internet journalist Yahyaoui and other Web-based independent journalists challenged one of the region’s most intolerant regimes by continuing to publish online in the face of repeated threats. Despite government reprisals, Saudi journalists tackled taboo topics, such as religious militancy in their country. Other journalists barred from expressing their views in domestic media throughout the region made their voices heard in the growing number of offshore newspapers and satellite channels.

Greater media independence will ultimately go hand in hand with real political reform in the Middle East and North Africa. In the meantime, those outspoken voices that refuse to be silenced will play a pivotal role in laying the foundations of the future of free media.

Joel Campagna is CPJ’s senior program coordinator, responsible for the Middle East and North Africa. Hani Sabra, research associate for the Middle East and North Africa, contributed to the writing and research of this section. CPJ consultants Nilay Karaelmas and Rhonda Roumani provided important research on Turkey and Iraq, respectively. The Open Society Institute provided emergency funding for the Middle East and North Africa program during the Iraq conflict.