Attacks on the Press 2005: Middle East Analysis

In the Crosshairs, Journalists Face New Threat 
By Joel Campagna 
The bomb that ripped through Samir Qassir’s white Alfa Romeo on June 2, 2005, silenced Lebanon’s most fearless journalist. For years, Qassir’s outspoken columns in the daily Al-Nahar took on the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies when few reporters dared do so. The assassination sent shockwaves across the region, and reminded the media of the perils of being an independent journalist in the Middle East.

As friends and colleagues mourned Qassir and fretted over the implications of his murder, reports emerged in Libya that the body of journalist Dayf al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi had been found on a suburban Benghazi street with a single bullet to the head. Al-Ghazal, who for years worked in Muammar Qaddafi’s tightly controlled, state-run press, had gone missing almost two weeks earlier. He had contributed dissenting articles to a number of London-based opposition Web sites and had been interrogated by Libyan agents about his writings.

Qassir and al-Ghazal were hardly the first journalists in the region assassinated for their work, and they would not be the last. Al-Nahar Managing Director and columnist Gebran Tueni was murdered in Beirut in December, punctuating a year in which journalists in the Middle East endured violent attacks as never before. Seizing the moment of broader calls for political change, many journalists have sought to expand the debate and challenge the status quo. In some countries journalists have capitalized on small political openings brought about by the deaths of autocrats to boost debate in the local media. They have seized on new technologies often beyond the reach of repressive governments–the Internet and satellite television–to exchange ideas. External forces have also played a role. The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the war in Iraq have prompted discussions on political reform and pushed local democrats, including independent journalists, to clamor for greater rights as well as government accountability.

Over the years, Arab governments have efficiently discouraged critical, introspective journalism in their domestic media through nonviolent methods: the use of ominous press laws, criminal libel statutes, imprisonment, bureaucratic restrictions, job dismissals, and admonishments from security agents. Governments and political actors such as the various Palestinian factions and Lebanese groups have traditionally controlled the press by buying loyalty, or by co-opting the media through threats or harassment.

But in some countries the rules of the game have changed. Amid citizens’ clamor for greater rights, governments and political groups have demonstrated their own insecurity by responding to press criticism with ruthless oppression. Journalists who refuse to play by the new rules have found themselves increasingly in the assassin’s crosshairs, or as the targets of other brazen, violent attacks. A growing number of attacks against journalists have been carried out with impunity, forcing independents across the region to ponder the consequences of what they write.

Just three months after the murders of Qassir and al-Ghazal, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation journalist May Chidiac lost an arm and a leg when a bomb exploded under the driver’s seat of her car near the port city of Jounieh. On the day of the attack, Chidiac hosted a political talk show addressing Syria’s possible involvement in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February. United Nations investigators eventually implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence and concluded that senior Syrian officials likely had knowledge. On December 12, the day that investigators issued an updated report, another car bomb took the life of Tueni, a fierce critic of the Syrian government. The perpetrators in all of the attacks remained at large, and some Lebanese feared more killings of outspoken journalists.

In Yemen, where the government was on its heels amid economic woes and public protests, journalists have witnessed a sharp rise in assaults and threats at the hands of government agents and armed groups. In August, editor Jamal Amer was abducted by gunmen who, during his four hours in captivity, beat him repeatedly, and accused him of defaming unspecified “officials.” Amer said the car that spirited him away belonged to the Yemeni Republican Guard. At year’s end, Yemeni authorities had provided little indication that those responsible would be apprehended.

Amer’s ordeal was eerily reminiscent of an incident that occurred in Egypt 10 months earlier, when four men assaulted and briefly abducted Abdel Halim Kandil, an editor and columnist at the opposition weekly Al-Arabi and a staunch critic of President Hosni Mubarak. The attackers took Kandil’s mobile telephone and glasses before dumping him in the middle of a desert road, stripped to his underwear, with a warning to stop writing about “important people.” That case, too, was unsolved.

Even more ominously, the government in Iran has dealt a near death blow to the country’s independent media, not only by shutting down pro-reform newspapers, but also by the systematic arrest and torture of press critics. Several writers, bloggers, and dissident journalists have been detained, placed in solitary confinement, and physically abused during their imprisonment. In late 2004 and early 2005, writer Fereshteh Ghazi and bloggers Omid Memarian and Ruzbeh Mir Ebrahimi, among other journalists, discussed their own experiences of abuse in testimony before a presidential commission looking into the treatment of prisoners.

Nowhere is the sense of vulnerability to violence and impunity more pronounced–and its effects so dramatic–than in the region’s major conflict areas. In terms of media casualties, the bloody war in Iraq has surpassed the grim toll of Algeria’s civil conflict, which claimed the lives of 58 journalists between 1993 and 1996. Already in Iraq, a total of 82 journalists and media support staffers have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. As in Algeria in the 1990s, many of the journalists killed have been hunted down by armed groups and murdered in retaliation for their work. Insurgents, perhaps taking a cue from armed Algerian groups, have compiled so-called “hit lists” of journalists in some cities, which they post in public places or in mosques. Their victims have mostly been local Iraqi reporters working for domestic or international media who were targeted because of their perceived support of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, or because of editorial stances viewed as hostile to the insurgents.

The attacks on the media in Iraq are further evidence of just how vulnerable conflict reporters have become. Today, the concept of journalists as neutral noncombatants applies less and less in places like Iraq, making it increasingly difficult for journalists to gather and report the news from the field without mortal threat. Journalists there have been targeted under suspicion that they are “spies,” because they are viewed as partisans, or because they work with “foreigners.” Armed groups have also attacked or abducted members of the media for political gain, to maximize publicity, to use as bargaining chips, or to squelch unwanted reporting.

A case in point–though without the same lethal results–is the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where armed groups have taken advantage of the power vacuum left by a debilitated Palestinian Authority to prey upon media critics. News organizations routinely endure threats, violent attacks, and have their offices ransacked. Once unheard of in the Occupied Territories, kidnappings of media workers have become commonplace in the last two years.

The rash of deadly attacks inspires appreciation for the bravery of front-line reporters who continue to report the news despite the threat of abduction, assault, or death. They also underscore how much a free and open press hinges on the ability of journalists to carry out their mission without threat to life and limb. That’s why it’s essential to demand accountability when journalists are attacked or murdered for their work, and to bring to justice those responsible. When impunity thrives, a free press can no longer function. Enterprising journalists, who are its engine, will no longer be willing to take their chances.

Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.