Washington, January 22, 2008—In testimony today before the House Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee, the Committee to Protect Journalists raised concern about mounting press freedom abuses in U.S. ally nations in the Middle East and urged the U.S. government to prioritize press freedoms in its bilateral relations.
In addressing a hearing on media freedom in the Arab world, CPJ Mideast Program Coordinator Joel Campagna highlighted press freedom conditions in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen, where independent journalists have been imprisoned, put on trial, or threatened in ongoing crackdowns on the media.
Campagna discussed how Arab governments are increasingly engaging in stealth attacks on journalists in order to minimize international censure. Instead of persecuting journalists explicitly for their journalism, authorities are turning to subtly coercive tactics that draw less scrutiny. Image-conscious governments have also become masters of spin, championing cosmetic media reforms designed mainly for public consumption.
Campagna said that government officials and NGOs need to “redouble their efforts to unmask stealth attacks on the press and expose empty media reforms.” CPJ called on U.S. policymakers to develop more effective ways of promoting political reform and media development and “to speak out when journalists, who are often at the frontlines of the struggle for greater liberties, face repression for their work.”
In his discussion about the ongoing government repression of the media in Tunisia, a strong U.S. ally in the Arab world, Campagna named the country as the region’s top jailer of journalists over the last six years. Most recently, journalist Slim Boukhdir was sentenced last month to a year in prison on trumped-up charges of verbally assaulting a public employee and violating public decency. Boukhdir’s imprisonment is widely seen as retaliation for his online stories critical of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family. An appeals court confirmed his sentence on Friday.
Campagna also discussed eroding press freedom in Egypt, a leading recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, where authorities have cracked down on independent journalists through a series of criminal lawsuits and jailings. Twenty-two-year-old blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman is currently serving a four-year jail term for allegedly insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak in critical online posts that accused Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the preeminent institution of higher education in Sunni Islam, of promoting extremist ideas. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent weekly Al-Dustour, is one of several editors facing trial. He stands accused of publishing reports on Mubarak’s health and faces possible prison time if convicted.
In Morocco, which last year was awarded a record five-year, $697.5 million economic aid package by the U.S. government-backed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), independent journalists have been the targets of a slew of politicized criminal prosecutions for their coverage of sensitive political issues. Leading publisher Aboubakr Jamai, formerly of the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, left the country last year after a court ordered him to pay record damages of more than $300,000 in a case widely seen as retribution for his magazine’s critical coverage of the Moroccan monarchy. TelQuel Publisher Ahmed Benchemsi faces between three and five years in prison if convicted of disrespecting King Mohammed VI in a critical editorial published last year about the monarchy and legislative elections. And publisher Abderrahim Ariri and journalist Mustafa Hormatallah of the Moroccan weekly Al-Watan Al An were sentenced to six and eight months in prison for reproducing a secret government document detailing the security service’s monitoring of jihadist Web sites.
Finally, in Yemen, Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of an opposition news Web site and former editor of the online newspaper Al-Shoura, potentially faces the death penalty on trumped-up terrorism charges related to his critical writing about the government’s battle with rebels in the northeastern part of the country.
To read the entire testimony,click here.