Attacks on the Press 2007: Middle East Analysis

Under the Radar, a New Kind of Repression
By Joel Campagna 

On a Wednesday afternoon last June, Yemeni security agents stormed the home of outspoken editor Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani and dragged him before a State Security Court in the capital, Sana’a. A prosecutor questioned al-Khaiwani and later rang him up on charges of belonging to a secret terrorist cell–charges that carry a possible death sentence. The arrest shocked Yemeni journalists, and some wondered aloud whether their colleague, known for his incendiary columns attacking the Yemeni government and its battle with rebels in the northwestern city of Saada, might have been involved in something nefarious. CPJ issued guarded statements of concern, unsure whether the charge had substance. 

But as al-Khaiwani’s court case unfolded over several weeks, it became clear that the editor was no terrorist. Instead, the meager “evidence” that prosecutors revealed turned out to be photographs, news articles, and interviews found in al-Khaiwani’s home during a search. Al-Khaiwani, it seemed, was being railroaded for his unsparing criticism of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom he blamed for the war in Saada and whose government he had accused of widespread corruption. It was the same kind of criticism that had landed the editor in prison three years earlier, an episode that garnered Yemen international condemnation and helped scuttle millions in U.S. aid. In the earlier case, al-Khaiwani was jailed explicitly for his work; by 2007, Yemeni officials had apparently learned to take an indirect tack. By obliterating the line between reporting on government foes and being a foe, Yemeni authorities sought “to weaken solidarity” among journalists, al-Khaiwani told CPJ.

Al-Khaiwani’s ordeal is typical of the oblique tactics Arab governments increasingly use to stifle independent media while minimizing international censure. In today’s interconnected world, where information on rights abuses can travel the globe in minutes, governments can no longer afford to run roughshod over human rights as they did as recently as the 1990s. Aware that blunt repression could cost them international standing, foreign aid, and outside investment, they have fashioned themselves as democratic reformers while resorting to stealthy forms of media control. Manipulating the media, they have found, is more politically palatable to the international community than outright domination.

“In recent years, a new model of authoritarian governance has emerged in a number of key Arab states,” American political scientist Steven Heydemann wrote in an October 2007 Brookings Institution report. “A product of trial and error more than intentional design, Arab regimes have adapted to pressures for political change by developing strategies to contain and manage demands to democratize.”

In terms of the media, governments have built new strategies to contain the assertive journalists who have emerged over the last decade in countries such as Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Job dismissals, behind-the-scenes threats, third-party defamation suits, and trumped-up terrorism charges like those brought against al-Khaiwani have replaced the torture, enforced disappearances, and open-ended incarcerations that were the hallmarks of the previous era. Image conscious governments have also become masters of spin, championing cosmetic media reforms designed mainly for public consumption.

To be sure, outright repression of the media hasn’t vanished. Security forces still brutalize street reporters in places like Egypt and Tunisia, but such brazen suppression has become more selective, and governments more calculating.

Morocco, which has burnished an image as a country in democratic transition, typifies this trend. There, authorities have relied on third-party lawsuits, launched by individuals ostensibly independent of the government, to punish the country’s most independent journalists through extraordinary monetary damages that threaten to put their publications out of business. In February, Aboubakr Jamaï, publisher of the leading independent newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire, was forced to leave the country as judicial authorities prepared to seize his assets following a record-breaking defamation judgment. A Moroccan court upheld damages in the amount of 3 million dirhams (US$395,000) against Jamaï–the second record judgment against the publisher–in a suit brought by the head of a Brussels-based think tank who claimed Le Journal had defamed him in an article questioning the independence of the organization’s report on the disputed Western Sahara. A palace source told the magazine that the judgment was in fact reprisal for an unflattering 2005 cover photo of King Mohammed VI. In recent years, other similarly extraordinary libel judgments have been handed down against independent publications such as the popular weekly TelQuel. The verdicts, along with other forms of harassment, have had the desired effect of banishing critical journalists and promoting self-censorship.

“Surely we became far more cautious, understanding that anything, even the less harmful writings or pictures, could lead us to court trials–and God only would know the outcome,” remarked Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, publisher of TelQuel.

In Algeria, Mohamed Benchicou, outspoken editor of the now-defunct daily Le Matin, was sent to prison for two years in 2004 on alleged currency violations. Few journalists doubted that the real reason for Benchicou’s jailing was his criticism of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whom he had labeled an “Algerian fraud” in a book published earlier that year. In neighboring Tunisia, the government jailed human rights lawyer Mohammed Abbou in 2005 for defaming the judiciary and assaulting a fellow lawyer during an argument–bogus charges that were tacked on to Abbou’s conviction for writing an online article comparing Tunisia’s prisons to Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib.

For all of the region’s press freedom casualties, authoritarian governments are less intent on silencing critical media than they are bent on controlling them through the use of carrots and sticks. “You have to understand the equation that the regime is playing with the press in Morocco,” Jamaï said. “On the one hand, they hate us; on the other hand, they need us. If you went to Morocco and you visited the Royal Cabinet and you told the guys there, ‘You are an autocratic regime,’ do you know what they would say? They would say, ‘Look at Le Journal, look at this crazy Aboubakr Jamaï and what he is writing. How can you say we are not a free country?’ So we serve them, in a sense.”

Arab governments have also manipulated the media reform process. Regimes from Egypt to Yemen have touted cosmetic amendments to media laws that have long been used to control journalists. With great fanfare, Tunisia’s parliament passed a series of meaningless amendments to its press code in 2001, excising an ambiguously worded article prohibiting “defaming public order,” eliminating prison penalties for violating advertising regulations, and decreasing the period of time the government can suspend newspapers. It has had no practical effect: At least four journalists have been jailed for their work in Tunisia since 2001, and independent media remain under siege.

In Jordan, the government championed successive revisions of the country’s press law as a major step toward democracy because they eliminated prison penalties for journalists. Yet most journalists and dissidents jailed over the last decade have been put away not under the press law, but under the country’s restrictive penal code, which, along with other repressive legislation, remains intact. Recent amendments to the law prescribe severe fines that can easily be used to stifle independent reporting. And in Morocco, where four journalists have been jailed in the last five years, officials touted as a major step forward a 2007 press bill that would reduce the number of prohibitions against what could be written. But the bill, pending in late year, left intact a range of other restrictive provisions that could land journalists in jail or bankrupt them with heavy fines.

More critically, governments have fostered the illusion of change in the important electronic media sector, which remains a bastion of state control. Syria and Tunisia have hyped moves to privatize radio and television, yet licenses are doled out selectively to regime cronies. Syria launched private radio stations in 2004, but the outlets were barred from airing news or political content. In September, while a long line of other applicants waited and fumed, the Tunisian government allowed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s son-in-law to launch a new radio station. Tunisia’s first private television station, licensed in 2004, is owned by a pro-regime businessman, and its programming differs little from that of Tunisian state television.

Pan-Arab satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera have dented state monopolies on electronic media, of course, but they are no substitute for domestic broadcast outlets that can cover local news and deliver it to mass numbers of people.

Arab governments have had success in keeping independent journalists at heel by stunting media development, or, in countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen, by chipping away at press freedom gains through periodic crackdowns. Despite the democracy-promotion statements of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, Western donors have provided little inducement for governments to make meaningful reforms. In Yemen, for example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government aid agency, suspended the country’s participation in its programs in November 2005, citing the absence of democratic reform and press freedom. Yet the nation’s status was reinstated in 2007, allowing the flow of millions in development aid. And as Morocco pursued its media crackdown in 2007, Millennium Challenge approved a five-year, US$697.5 million economic aid package–the agency’s largest grant since it was formed in January 2004. Elsewhere in the region, aid money continued to flow, some of it to support media under the thumb of the state or paralyzed by government control. In Persian Gulf countries, where Western financial assistance is minimal or nonexistent, allies such as Saudi Arabia and Oman have retained strong bilateral relations even as they clamped down on media freedom.

Donors, human rights groups, and those involved in promoting democracy need to rethink their strategies to account for the new tactics employed by authoritarian governments. “[Arab regimes] have adapted by reorganizing strategies of governance to adjust to new global, regional, and domestic circumstances,” Heydemann wrote in the Brookings report. “Autocrats have not simply fallen back on coercion to fend off pressures for change–though repression remains a visible and potent element in the arsenal of Arab governments. Regimes have turned instead to a process that can best be described as authoritarian upgrading.’ These emerging strategies of governance have undermined gains achieved by democracy promotion programs, and will continue to blunt their impact in the future.”

For their part, press freedom groups must raise the political and economic costs for governments that trample on press freedom. They can start by exposing empty media reforms, unmasking stealth attacks on the press, and lobbying policymakers to develop meaningful criteria for change. The islands of media freedom in the region will vanish if journalists do not meet this new challenge.