Attacks on the Press 2004: Middle East and North Africa Analysis

By Joel Campagna

The conflict in Iraq led to a harrowing number of press attacks in 2004, with local journalists and media support workers primarily in the line of fire. Twenty-three journalists and 16 support staff—drivers, interpreters, fixers, and guards—were killed while on the job in Iraq in 2004. In all, 36 journalists and 18 support workers died from the beginning of hostilities in March 2003 to the end of 2004, making the conflict in Iraq one of the most dangerous for journalists in recent history. Only conflicts in Algeria, Colombia, the Balkans, and the Philippines have resulted in similarly high numbers of journalists killed since CPJ was founded in 1981.

Foreign correspondents in Iraq faced a range of severe risks, but a rash of abductions by criminal and insurgent groups posed new perils in 2004. With danger growing, Western news organizations relied increasingly on local journalists for front-line newsgathering. Data collected and analyzed by CPJ illustrate the trend: Thirty-three of the 39 media deaths in 2004 involved Iraqis—a striking turnaround from a year earlier, when foreign journalists accounted for all but two of the casualties.

A similar phenomenon played out in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip—the region’s other main flash point—where dozens of local journalists were threatened, physically abused, injured, and harassed on the job. The sole journalist killed in the Occupied Territories in 2004 was a local Palestinian reporter, as were four of the six media personnel killed since the second Palestinian intifada erupted in 2000.

The ascendancy of regional satellite news channels further highlights the growing role of Arab media in war correspondence. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya became major international forces in breaking news from Iraq, the Occupied Territories, and other conflict zones. In the process, the Arab news organizations suffered losses: Three Al-Arabiya journalists and five support staffers were killed in Iraq by U.S. troops or insurgent attacks. An assistant cameraman for Al-Jazeera was also killed by gunfire in Iraq.

Press conditions have improved in much of the Arab world in the last 10 years. More governments have permitted private or independent local news outlets to operate; news on satellite television stations and the Internet is more difficult for censors to reach. International pressure has prompted some countries to loosen restrictive press codes and allow for greater expression of dissenting views. But when it comes to covering the local issues that matter most, journalists remain heavily circumscribed in their reporting. Autocratic regimes continued to use a variety of controls to squelch independent reporting.

Restrictive press laws and broad emergency powers abound in the region, giving authorities the ability to censor newspapers and imprison journalists with little or no due process. Criticism of heads of state or Arab allies is typically a criminal offense. Vaguely worded press laws can be used to retaliate against nearly any type of dissident journalism.

Governments use these laws to great effect, even in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, where officials pledged to eliminate criminal penalties against the press. Ahmed Ezzedine, an Egyptian journalist with the independent weekly Al-Osbou (The Week), was sentenced to two years in prison for writing that a government official had given false testimony at the trial of a former governor convicted of taking bribes in 2002. Authorities detained Jordanian editor Fahd Rimawi and temporarily banned his newspaper when he wrote an editorial that called Saudi Arabian leaders “lackeys” of the United States. And in Yemen, editor Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani began serving a one-year prison sentence in September after he was convicted of incitement, insulting the president, and publishing false news in opinion columns critical of the government’s stance on an armed rebellion.

Dishearteningly, the new Iraqi interim government, which publicly promised to support press freedom in post-Saddam Iraq, also tried to suppress the media. In July, the government announced the formation of a Higher Media Commission authorized to close news outlets that cross unspecified “redlines.” The Iraqi government, citing an unpublished report from the commission, promptly shut Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau 10 days later and barred the station from newsgathering in Iraq for reports deemed to be against national interests.

Governments also wield tremendous leverage by controlling the licensing, distribution, advertising, and printing of newspapers. They often use these powers to influence content, bar offending publications from reaching newsstands, and block the emergence of new, independent newspapers.

Other behind-the-scenes tactics were common. Exchanges of cash for favorable coverage remained commonplace, with powerful politicians harnessing poorly paid reporters and editors to do their bidding. Security agents sought to influence content with threatening phone calls to journalists. Local journalists associations, tasked with defending press freedom, were often co-opted by authorities.

Such subtle pressure frequently succeeded in thwarting independent reporting. In Oman, the government informally but effectively banned writers Mohamed al-Harthi and Abdullah al-Riyami from working in the media after they criticized the government on a satellite television program. Saudi authorities have routinely imposed similar bans to keep enterprising journalists out of print.

The stories that did not appear in the press revealed widespread self-censorship in the region. In Tunisia, one of the most restrictive police states in the region, local papers ignored the international criticism that greeted President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali during his visit to the White House in February. In Jordan, where authorities normally allow the press some latitude, editorial and op-ed pages were silent when King Abdullah removed his half-brother as heir apparent, a major political story.

But a growing number of journalists are defying official pressures, offering some promise for the press. Egypt’s media more aggressively scrutinized the government’s failure to institute political reforms and even questioned the legitimacy of President Hosni Mubarak running unopposed for a fifth term. Lebanon’s press is known for promoting strong political debate, while journalists in Morocco continue to expose government corruption. A small band of independent journalists stood up to government repression in Tunisia by publishing dissident views, much of the time on the Internet. And despite some government censorship, Iraqi media operate with far greater freedom than under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule.

Press freedom activists, human rights groups, and concerned colleagues have multiplied in the last decade, providing a voice for besieged journalists. They have vocally defended journalists in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Sudan, and Yemen, where they protested the jailing and harassment of editors and pushed for press reforms. In Morocco and Tunisia, they played decisive roles in helping to secure the release of jailed colleagues.

The wealth of news and opinions provided by alternative media—from satellite channels to offshore newspapers to Internet blogs—was another bright spot. While alternative media have made crude government censorship increasingly anachronistic, authorities still seek to dampen their impact. Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, and Sudan either arrested correspondents for Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya or banned them from working. Offshore publications were held from distribution when they tackled sensitive topics. Authorities in Saudi Arabia and Jordan arrested and harassed critics who appeared on pan-Arab television shows and spoke criti-cally to other media outlets about government policy.

The Internet, too, came under frequent assault. Most governments in the region censor Web content, and several imprison Web bloggers. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Iran, where the government detained several Internet journalists and banned their sites. Fearful of the Web’s emergence as an alternative source for independent news and political discussion after having virtually eliminated the country’s liberal press, officials sought to cripple the growing movement of former print journalists and young Iranians who took to cyberspace.

Despite these obstacles, media innovators and risk-takers engender optimism in the Middle East. Whether they are Internet journalists harnessing new technologies to evade censorship, satellite broadcasters introducing independent news to the airwaves, press defenders confronting governments over abuse, or enterprising editors risking their liberty to expose misdeeds, they are all catalysts for greater media freedom.

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 Norh Africa, contributed extensively to the writing and research of this section. CPJ consultant Nilay Karaelmas provided research on Turkey. Intern Rebecca Murray provided research for the Algeria, Lebanon, and Sudan summaries. The Open Society Institute provided emergency funding for the Middle East and North Africa program during the Iraq conflict.