Attacks on the Press 2007: Middle East and North Africa Snapshots




• Authorities arrested Kamel Bousaad, editor of the pro-Islamist weekly Errissala, on February 8 and Berkane Bouderbala, managing editor of the weekly Essafir, on February 11, after their newspapers published controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The editors faced charges under Article 144 of the penal code for insulting the Prophet and denigrating Islam, which carries a five-year prison sentence. The case was closed and they were released after four weeks in prison, but the publications were suspended, according to CPJ sources.

• On February 11, cartoonist Ali Dilem was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 50,000 dinars (US$730) on defamation charges stemming from a series of cartoons depicting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that appeared in the French-language daily Liberté in 2003. An appeals court later found him not guilty of the charges. On February 2, the director of Canal Algérie, Lotfi Shriat, and the director of Thalita TV, Houriya Khateer, showed two of the cartoons during news broadcasts. They were later dismissed by state-owned Télévision Algérienne, which runs both channels, local sources told CPJ.

• The government approved a decree in February that effectively barred the media and families of victims from investigating crimes and human rights abuses that took place during the Algerian civil conflict of the 1990s. The blanket ban prevents investigation of the murders of at least 58 journalists by armed groups or unknown assailants between 1993 and 1996, and the disappearance of at least two reporters, Djameleddine Fahassi and Aziz Bouabdellah, widely believed to have been seized by members of the Algerian security forces. “The provisions of this decree are so sweeping that they amount to censorship and an attempt to control the writing of history,” CPJ said in a letter to Bouteflika on March 22.

• Mohamed Benchicou, former publisher of the French-language daily Le Matin, was released June 14 from El-Harrache Prison outside Algiers after serving a two-year sentence for allegedly violating the country’s currency laws in 2003. Journalists and human rights groups viewed his conviction as retaliation for Le Matin‘s critical editorial line against the government. He was prosecuted shortly after Le Matin alleged that Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni had tortured detainees while a military security commander in the 1970s. Several criminal defamation lawsuits remained pending against Benchicou. Le Matin was forced to close in 2004 when the state printer demanded the newspaper settle its outstanding debts immediately.

• On July 5, Algeria’s Independence Day, Bouteflika pardoned all journalists convicted of defaming or insulting the president, public officials, and state institutions. The president had marked World Press Freedom Day on May 3 by offering amnesty to jailed journalists, but it applied only to journalists whose appeals had failed, Agence France-Presse reported.

• An Algiers court convicted Ali Fodil, executive editor of the Arabic-language newspaper Ech-Chourouk, and reporter Naila Berrahal on October 31 on charges of defaming Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, according to the newspaper. The defense planned an appeal, The Associated Press reported. The Libyan embassy in Algiers sued the newspaper after it published two articles in August suggesting the Libyan leader had a role in negotiations with Touareg leaders to create a new state in the Sahel region. The articles reported the hostile reaction of the Touareg in southern Algeria to the plan.

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• In October, the High Criminal Court prohibited the “publication of all types of news, analyses, or information pertaining to the case of Salah al-Bandar,” the Bahrain News Agency reported. Al-Bandar, an adviser to the Cabinet Affairs Ministry, authored a report for the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development alleging that certain government officials intended to deprive many Shiites of their voting rights. Police deported al-Bandar, a British citizen, to the United Kingdom. The government said he would be tried in absentia for sedition, The Associated Press reported. Senior editors of Bahrain’s Arabic-language newspapers urged the country’s highest court on October 15 to review the government’s ban on reporting allegations of election fraud, according to AP.

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• Security agents questioned Fahd al-Rimawi, editor of the weekly Al-Majd, for more than six hours on May 8 over an article criticizing the government’s announcement that it had uncovered a Hamas arms cache, son Mothaffar al-Rimawi told CPJ. The editor was not allowed to call his family or newspaper.

• Two editors were sentenced on May 30 to two months in prison for publishing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Jihad Momani, former editor-in-chief of the weekly Shihan, and Hashem al-Khalidi, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Mehwar, were found guilty by an Amman court of offending religious feelings and beliefs. Both editors were released on bail pending appeal.

• On June 8, security services abruptly halted a live Al-Jazeera interview with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brother-in-law, briefly detaining interviewer Yasser Abu Hilala and his crew in al-Zarqa, north of Amman. Al-Jazeera was interviewing Abu Qudama, who praised his brother-in-law, an al-Qaeda leader killed by U.S. forces in Iraq, when Jordanian security officers interrupted the interview and arrested Qudama. A CBS freelance correspondent and cameraman waiting to interview Qudama after Al-Jazeera were also detained at the scene and had their equipment confiscated.

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• On November 21, state prosecutors briefly detained Khaled al-Obysan, a columnist for the daily Al-Seyassah, for defending former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in an article published in the paper’s November 9 issue, The Associated Press reported. Al-Obysan said the death sentence imposed against Saddam by an Iraqi tribunal was a “medal on his chest and a brand of shame on the forehead of the American administration and its tools in the Arab world.” Prosecutors also questioned Ahmed al-Jarrallah, the paper’s editor-in-chief, according to AP. Prosecutors said the column threatened ties with Iraq and the United States. No charges were pressed.

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• On August 20, Seif al-Islam Muammar Qaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and president of the Qaddafi Institution for Development, said Libya has “no constitution, no press, and no democracy,” while announcing in the city of Surt, east of Tripoli, a program to advance the country to levels achieved by other oil states. “In all frankness and transparency, there is no freedom of the press in Libya; actually there is no press, even, and there is no real ‘direct people’s democracy’ on the ground,” the younger Qaddafi said. “That is something all Libyans say, from simple individuals to officials. And the people are all in agreement that there is no democracy in Libya.”

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• Security authorities detained El-Moustapha Ould Aoufa, a correspondent for the Iranian Arabic-language satellite channel Al-Alam and chief editor of the state-run Mauritanian TV. The March 4 arrest followed a program by Al-Alam on unrest in the Azouad region of neighboring Mali. Mauritanian authorities believed the program had offended a friendly government, the local independent news agency Al-Akhbar reported. Aoufa and his guest on the show, El-Moukhtar el-Jaid, were arrested shortly after the broadcast. Aoufa was accused of aiding someone hostile to a friendly government. Security agents handed over el-Jaid, an Azaouad activist, to Malian authorities. In the program, el-Jaid accused the Malian government of carrying out extrajudicial killings of Azouad opposition activists, Al-Akhbar reported. The Azaouad region, located in northwestern Mali, is inhabited by Touareg herders who are fighting the central government in Bamako. Mauritanian TV sacked Aoufa a few hours after his release on March 7, according to Al-Akhbar.

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• Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein lashed out at foreign journalists attending a March 1 press conference in Khartoum, calling them “terrorists” and expelling them from the room. Hussein was angered by the international media’s coverage of the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. “The international media have escalated the problem … because they sent incorrect information,” he was quoted as saying.

• Pro-Sudanese government forces detained Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune, along with his Chadian interpreter, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, and driver Idriss Abdelrahman Anu, in Darfur on August 6. Salopek was on a freelance assignment for the U.S. magazine National Geographic to report on the culture, geography, and history of Africa’s Sahel region. On August 26, a court in El-Fasher charged the three with espionage, illegally disseminating information, and writing “false news,” in addition to a noncriminal count of entering the country without a visa. President Omar al-Bashir agreed on September 8 to free the men on humanitarian grounds following a personal appeal from Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

• On August 30, Khartoum police beat Ibrahim Muhammad, a cameraman for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, and seized his camera during a banned demonstration of opposition parties and their supporters against a rise in gasoline and sugar prices, Reuters reported. The police chased Muhammad, who had been filming the demonstration, and beat him with sticks while firing tear gas into the crowd. One of the tear gas canisters hit a Reuters vehicle, the agency reported.

• On September 5, masked gunmen kidnapped editor Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed of the private daily Al-Wifaq outside his home in Khartoum. Police found his severed head next to his body the following day south of the capital. His hands and feet were bound. Taha, 50, was a pro-government Islamist who had offended the country’s powerful Islamists by republishing an article from the Internet that questioned the ancestry of the Prophet Muhammad. He was detained, his newspaper suspended, and he was subsequently charged with blasphemy. Later in September, a purported leader of an al-Qaeda branch in Africa, Abu Hafs al-Sudani, claimed responsibility for the slaying, saying that Taha had insulted the Prophet. Some questioned the authenticity of the claim.

• Zuhayr al-Sarraj, a columnist for the private daily Al-Sahafa, was arrested by Sudanese security forces and held for 60 hours at Kober jail in Khartoum on January 3, a source at the paper told CPJ. Al-Sarraj was charged by the national security prosecutor with “insulting the president” in connection with a column questioning the president’s performance. Charges were pending.

• Riot police beat three journalists–Imam Abdelbagi al-Khidir, a reporter for the private daily Akhir Lahza; Maha Mabruk, an intern for the paper; and Safa al-Salih, a correspondent for the BBC Arabic service–covering an August 30 demonstration in Khartoum about economic hardship. Al-Hindi Izzedine, Akhir Lahza‘s deputy editor, told CPJ that the three were held for about two hours at the central police station until their press credentials were verified.

• On September 18, Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha announced the end of a wave of censorship against Khartoum papers. Seven private Arabic-language dailies–Al-Ayam, Al-Adwoaa, Al-Sudani, Alwan, Al-Sahafa, Ray-al-Shaab, and Al-Watan–were censored or confiscated beginning September 9. Authorities told editors that the issues were censored to avoid compromising an investigation into the murder of Al-Wifaq‘s Taha. Local journalists said the censored editions carried articles about the lack of democratic transformation and the suppression of demonstrations against fuel and sugar price increases.

• Abu Obeida Abdallah, a reporter for the pro-government daily Al-Ra’y al-Aam, was released on October 15 after being held incommunicado and without charge for more than two weeks by security forces. Reuters said that sources reported different reasons for the detention. Kamal Hassan Bakhiet, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said he believed Abdallah was questioned as part of the Taha murder investigation. Abdallah may have had telephone contact with someone state security suspected in the slaying, he told the news agency.

• Sa’d al-Din Hassan-Abdallah, correspondent for the satellite channel Al-Arabiya, told CPJ he was arrested by security forces in Khartoum on October 15, questioned for several hours, and had his laptop confiscated. Hassan-Abdallah’s arrest followed the broadcast of a report on the forced relocation of residents in the Amri region, 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Khartoum, where the government is building the Merowe High Dam. He was summoned on October 17 and October 19 for further questioning, he told CPJ. He later stopped working under pressure from the pro-government Press and Publications Council.

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• Sha’ban Abboud, Damascus correspondent for the leading Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, was detained by Syrian authorities on March 2, according to the paper. Abboud was accused by a military court of publishing false information following a February 28 article on nominations within the security and intelligence services, Syrian rights lawyer Anwar Bunni told Agence France-Presse. According to Al-Nahar, Abboud was released on bail March 7, following the intervention of fellow journalists and human rights groups. He faced three years in prison if convicted by a military court, according to news reports.

• On June 7, a military court found Muhammad Ghanem, editor of the news Web site Surion, guilty of insulting the president, undermining the state’s dignity, and inciting sectarian divisions. Ghanem was sentenced to one year in jail, but the judge commuted his sentence to six months, Surion said, without offering further explanation. Ghanem had been detained since March 31, Surion and human rights organizations reported. He had written many articles advocating political and cultural rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority and had been critical of the Baath Party’s handling of domestic issues.

• Security agents arrested Palestinian-born Swedish journalist Rachid al-Hajeh at the Damascus airport on June 16 and threatened to charge him with insulting the Syrian state. The arrest stemmed from a Swedish television interview conducted 10 years earlier with a Syrian seeking asylum, according to Sweden’s Foreign Ministry. In the interview, the Syrian was reported to have made critical comments about his home country, attracting the attention of Syria’s secret service, news reports said. Throughout al-Hajeh’s detention, Swedish Embassy officials were not allowed to see him, or to attend his interviews and court proceedings. He was released on June 27.

• Human rights activist and freelance journalist Ali Abdallah and his son Mohammad were released October 4 after completing six-month sentences for “disturbing public order,” “spreading false information likely to harm the financial prestige of the state,” and “insulting a high-ranking public employee,” according to CPJ sources. Abdallah’s son was arrested immediately after protesting his father’s arrest in an interview with the satellite channel Al-Jazeera. According to CPJ sources, the questioning of Abdallah and his son by the president of a military tribunal focused on the journalist’s opinion pieces and his son’s interview with Al-Jazeera. Abdallah is a regular contributor to Lebanese papers, including the daily Al-Nahar, and to the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi.

• Information Minister Muhsin Bilal ordered the closure of the country’s only private satellite channel, Sham TV, eight months after it launched. The October 30 order was issued orally to owner Muhammad Akram al-Jundi, a member of parliament, and to Director Maamun al-Bunni, according to the independent AKI Press agency, which cited government sources. The closure came on the day Sham TV was scheduled to air its first news report and five weeks after it began broadcasting from outside Damascus, the U.N. news agency IRIN said. The report quoted al-Bunni as saying that problems with the paperwork for the station’s broadcast rights had led to the government order. He said that Sham TV would be back on the air.

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