Time for Real Media Reform in Arab World
Al-Hayat newspaper, London
A free and vibrant press is vital to the political reform being touted by a number of Arab governments today. But as the world marks World Press Freedom Day on May 3, it is important to recognize the gulf between the rhetoric and the actions of government leaders in support of a free news media.
It’s time for real, not merely cosmetic, change.
There is little question that press conditions have improved in much of the Arab world in the last 15 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 and local pressures have 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 are still heavily circumscribed by their governments. The recent clamor for democracy and political reform has not translated into marked improvements for journalists trying to report on sensitive topics.
Consider the following examples from the last month alone. In April, a Moroccan court banned maverick Moroccan editor Ali Lmrabet from practicing journalism for 10 years over an article he wrote contradicting official views on the Western Sahara dispute. A few days later, three Egyptian journalists from the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm were sentenced to a year in prison for reporting on an apparent corruption investigation involving an Egyptian minister. Both of these rulings came on the heels of the release from prison of Yemeni editor Abdel Karim Khaiwani who served seven months in prison for incitement, “insulting” the president, and publishing false news. Across the region journalists endure less dramatic, but very effective state pressure—including efforts by security forces to monitor and discourage enterprise journalism.
Arab governments have expressed public support for media reform, but these promises seem to be made primarily for public consumption. In the last year, governments in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen have pledged to amend laws to do away with the pernicious practice of jailing journalists for their work. But these changes have yet to be approved and journalists continue to face the specter of criminal prosecution for what they write. Some of the proposals themselves appear to be smoke screens, giving the illusion of change where there is none. A proposal in Jordan would outlaw prison terms under the press law, but provisions in the penal code and other laws still allow authorities to detain, prosecute, and imprison journalists for their work. And when laws are not used against critics, states deter reporting through other, equally nefarious techniques such as job dismissal and behind-the-scenes threats.
Greater media freedom will ultimately go hand in hand with real political reform and the strengthening of the rule of law. But if governments are serious about backing up their rhetoric in support of democracy and independent media they should take decisive action.
A good initial step would be to abolish or drastically overhaul media laws that set out archaic content bans and bureaucratic restrictions that hobble independent reporting. Governments should outlaw the practice of jailing journalists for their work and close loopholes that allow journalists to be imprisoned under separate penal laws.
Second, governments should actively take steps to disengage the security services from the media. Few actions have had a more harmful effect on local media coverage than the interference of security services in the press’ work. Security services notoriously wield tremendous influence over local media by controlling or cowing journalists through myriad behind-the-scenes pressures, including phone calls, threats, and invitations to “come drink coffee.”
Third, governments should allow the emergence of more independent news outlets by opening their licensing, distribution, and advertising practices. Throughout the region, states dominate the airwaves and the few existing independents are limited to entertainment and devoid of important political and news programming.
These are just a few, major steps that should be taken. A free press is essential to a free and open society when it serves to hold government accountable and when it allows people to make informed choices. If empowered to do its job, media can be a catalyst for the reform many Arab governments say they now support. A free press requires a willingness by journalists to be independent and take risks and a commitment by governments to tolerate news and views they may find displeasing. The cases of Ali Lmrabet, Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, and Al-Masry al-Youm demonstrate the existence of the former. Whether the latter exists is much less certain.
Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists.