Defending al-Zaidi, but not journalists at home

The now infamous incident of Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President George Bush became primetime news throughout the world. In the Middle East it has been shown on television almost endlessly. 

A previous entry on the CPJ blog stated that the incident is not a press freedom case, but expressed concern regarding the reported–though unconfirmed–mistreatment of al-Zaidi after he was detained.

As expected, many government officials, state-owned news agencies, and government-aligned organizations in the Middle East have made public statements in support of al-Zaidi. Ironically, most of those countries have a long and thoroughly documented history of repressing journalists themselves.

One can’t help but wonder why similar statements of solidarity are rarely issued when local journalists are harassed, imprisoned, or worse.

For instance, press freedom advocates in Egypt and elsewhere recently commemorated the second anniversary of the arrest of Egyptian blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman, better known by the pseudonym Karim Amer. He was sentenced in early 2007 by a court in Alexandria to four years in prison for his critical online articles. Suleiman is just one example of dozens of journalists harassed or imprisoned by Egyptian authorities in recent years.

Aisha al-Qaddafi, daughter of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, announced on Monday that a government-aligned charitable organization which she directs will present a “Medal of Bravery” to al-Zaidi. “It was a means for journalist al-Zaidi to say ‘No! No to violations of human rights,’ ” said a statement released by her organization.

On June 2, 2005, the body of freelance journalist Daif al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi was found in Benghazi, about 620 miles east of Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Al-Shuhaibi, who had been kidnapped about 10 days earlier, had written critical articles about government officials and the state media. A Tripoli court sentenced to death three suspected murderers of freelance journalist Daif al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi, the journalist’s brother told Agence France-Press in mid-July. Details of the prosecution were scant, prompting concern among rights groups about whether the true perpetrators had been brought to justice.

In Jordan, members of Parliament stood silently for one minute to pay homage to al-Zaidi.

In Syria, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Mahmud al-Abrash, praised al-Zaidi and described his act as a “typical reaction to Bush’s criminal policies.”

In just the last week, the Tunisian, Saudi Arabian, and Syrian governments prevented journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists from their respective countries from traveling to Lebanon to attend the World Association of Newspapers’ Arab Press Forum.

Governments in the region might look homeward when considering the rights of journalists. 

UPDATE: Paragraph seven has been updated to include a reported conviction in the death of Daif al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi, and that human rights groups remain skeptical as to whether justice has been served in the case.