Attacks on the Press 2010: Middle East and North Africa Analysis

Suppression Under the Cover of National Security

A police trooper stands guard on a police vehicle outside a state security court in Sanaa, Yemen. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
A police trooper stands guard on a police vehicle outside a state security court in Sanaa, Yemen. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

By Mohamed Abdel Dayem

Relying on an extensive network of sources in the military, government, and Islamist groups, Yemeni freelance journalist Abdulelah Shaea had become a frequent and pointed critic of the administration’s counterterrorism efforts. By July, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government had enough, dispatching security agents to seize and roughly interrogate Shaea for several hours about his reporting.


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“The interrogators told me to stop talking to media about the government’s campaign against Al-Qaeda. They told me it was for my own good. When I told them that I wouldn’t be dissuaded from doing my job, they reminded me that they could disappear me at any time of their choosing,” Shaea told CPJ shortly after his release. As promised, the journalist continued his work, which has included exclusive interviews with leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and numerous appearances on the regional satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in which he faulted the government’s anti-terror tactics.

“He always made them look bad, so as far as they’re concerned, that makes him a terrorist,” said one Yemeni journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being subjected to retaliation himself. Indeed, on August 16, security agents raided Shaea’s home, seized his computer and notes, detained him incommunicado for a month, and then charged him in a special security court with “planning to carry out terrorist acts” and “providing media support to Al-Qaeda leadership.” The evidence presented by late year included only reporting material, according to Shaea’s lawyer, Abdel-Rahman Berman.

Throughout the region, governments are conflating critical and probing coverage of counterterrorism with terrorism itself, claiming national security grounds to suppress news and opinions they perceive to be unfavorable. As the practice has become more common, officials have become emboldened to apply national security grounds to restrict all forms of critical coverage.

In countries from Egypt to Turkey, governments have enacted sweeping national security legislation that criminalizes the coverage of terrorism and, often, all manner of politically sensitive topics. Through laws and policies, nations such as Israel and Yemen restrict independent access to conflict areas in the name of national security. Nowhere are national security tactics more abused than in Iran, where numerous journalists have been jailed on antistate charges that actually spring from political reporting and commentary. In other places, from Sudan to Bahrain, authorities have used harassment, threats, and restrictions on movements to limit independent coverage on sensitive issues. The effect has been to conceal controversial activities and flawed policies, suppress political opposition, and settle scores with critics.

All governments have a right and obligation to ensure national security by protecting military tactics, guarding national secrets, and combating actions that threaten their citizens. But CPJ research shows that governments in the region have abused national security laws to retaliate against critical journalists. CPJ’s 2010 census of imprisoned journalists shows that 37 reporters and editors in the region–and 72 worldwide–were improperly jailed on antistate charges on December 1. Abusive use of national security charges was the single greatest cause of journalist imprisonments, both regionally and worldwide.

CPJ data over the past decade show a resurgent use of antistate accusations by regional governments. The use of such charges–which can range from espionage to subversion to terrorism–was relatively common after the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. CPJ’s census found 19 journalists jailed on antistate charges in the region in December 2001, and 16 the following year. The number dipped throughout the rest of the decade only to rise again in 2009, when antistate charges were leveled in 16 cases.

“Absent the rule of law and a culture of resistance to abusive policies, governments are encouraged to take liberties. The ‘you are either with us or against us’ approach has been adopted by many governments with regard to journalists,” says Roula Mikhael, executive director of the Beirut-based Maharat Foundation, a group promoting press freedom and democracy.


Over the past five years, Yemen instituted a near-total blackout on media reporting from the war-afflicted northwestern Saada region. Saada’s remoteness and the fact that it is accessible through a limited number of heavily monitored roads have enabled the government to establish a reporting ban that Human Rights Watch described as “the strongest in the world.” The government justified its actions as a counterinsurgency measure but has not provided a more detailed explanation.

The few local reporters resourceful enough to find a way into Saada were promptly arrested and accused of antistate activities. Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition news website Al-Shoura, was detained and accused of “belonging to a terrorist cell,” “carrying out terrorist operations,” and “manufacturing explosives.” Although the evidence against al-Khaiwani consisted solely of journalistic material, he was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to a six-year prison term–only to be released later that year on a presidential pardon. Muhammad al-Maqaleh, editor of the opposition news website Aleshteraki, faced a similar situation after reporting on government airstrikes in Saada that killed nearly 100 civilians and injured hundreds more. Although agents seized al-Maqaleh in September 2009, the government denied holding him for five months before finally trying him in a state security court on charges of providing aid to rebels. He was released on “humanitarian grounds” in March 2010 after his health deteriorated sharply.

“Governments above all else want to maintain the political status quo,” al-Khaiwani said. “And they will go to great lengths to do so, including disingenuously accusing journalists of grave crimes when their work endangers that status quo.”

In late 2008, just weeks before its 22-day military campaign in Gaza, Israel imposed a blanket ban on the entry of journalists into the occupied territory. CPJ and numerous press freedom groups called on Israel to lift the restrictions, noting that the 1995 Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression, and Access to Information allow such limits only when a government can demonstrate that the mere presence of journalists poses a clear risk to the lives of others. The Israeli Supreme Court also opposed the blanket ban, ordering the military to grant at least some access to journalists.

The government rebuffed both international groups and the country’s own high court, in the process equating coverage of Palestinian perspectives with actual aid to terrorists. “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that,” Daniel Seaman, director of Israel’s government press office, told The New York Times. In January 2009, Israeli forces bombed the offices of the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television and Al-Risala weekly. Responding to CPJ inquiries about the attacks, the military stated that it “does not target civilian locations unless they are used for terrorist activity.” It provided no supporting evidence.

Creeping use of national security grounds has become a matter of convenience for authorities, said Muamar Orabi, general director of the Ramallah-based Wattan TV. “The excuse of security is one of the easiest ways to silence” critical journalists, he said. Palestinian journalists are particularly prone to these abuses because they are subjected to security restrictions set by Israeli, West Bank, and Gaza authorities. Take correspondent Tariq Abu Zaid, who was arrested in the West Bank in August 2009 solely because of his employer–Al-Aqsa television, a station banned by the Fatah-led government for perceived partisan coverage. In February, he was tried in a military court for “undermining the status of the authority, and resisting the public policy of the Palestinian Authority,” and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Abu Zaid was freed in November following an executive order from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian journalists told CPJ that they are routinely denied Israeli-issued press permits that would enable them to traverse the hundreds of checkpoints dotting the West Bank. Orabi said he could recall only one press permit granted to Wattan TV’s 30 journalists over the 14 years the independent broadcaster has been in existence. The only exception, he said, was a “one-time, three-hour permit” that enabled him to take a flight to the United States. The reason given for the routine rejection of permit applications, he said, “is always security–no further justification is ever given.”

Fearing reprisals invoked in the name of national security, Orabi said, some journalists engage in self-censorship or partisan reporting. “Many journalists are forced to follow the government line, be that the [Fatah-led] Palestinian Authority or Hamas, while trying to evade Israel’s various restrictions,” he said. “In the process, it’s the journalists and the quality of the reporting that are the ultimate victims.”

Governments also exploit national security grounds to settle scores with critics and political opponents. In Iran since June 2009 and in Bahrain in the closing months of 2010, such grounds were used to eliminate coverage of the political opposition.

Following the social unrest that erupted after the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, Iran mounted a massive crackdown against independent and opposition media. The concerted effort to quell any voices that diverged from the government position resulted in the imprisonment of more than 100 journalists and bloggers in the year and a half after the disputed vote. Although many journalists were released after being charged with relatively minor infractions, others faced more serious antistate charges that carried lengthy prison terms and, in some cases, the death penalty.

Of the 34 journalists in custody when CPJ conducted its annual prison census on December 1, at least 25 were being held on charges of having compromised the national security of the Islamic Republic. “Propagating against the regime” was the most frequently leveled count against journalists in Iran since June 2009, CPJ research found. Yet a review of the journalists’ actions that led to these charges and convictions yields activities such as exposing the rape and torture of prisoners, reporting on street demonstrations, interviewing critical clerics and political analysts, and covering the activities of the political opposition.

Mohammad Davari, a recipient of CPJ’s 2010 International Press Freedom Award and editor-in-chief of the reformist news website Saham News, was serving a five-year prison sentence for documenting allegations of rape and torture at the Kahrizak Detention Center. He was found guilty of “mutiny with the purpose of disrupting national security.” Renowned author, journalist, and human rights defender Emadeddin Baghi was detained on security charges after the BBC rebroadcast a two-year-old interview he had conducted with Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a once-influential cleric whose death in 2009 had galvanized government critics. Baghi, sentenced to six years imprisonment for that interview, suffered severe health problems in custody.

“Among the most urgent needs in Iranian society is transparency and accountability. And the Iranian judiciary has, unfortunately, become a tool to prevent journalists from providing those things,” Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told CPJ. “Journalists who press for accountability and transparency are routinely accused of ‘acting against national security’ or ‘propaganda against the regime.'”

In Bahrain, authorities said they were dismantling “a terrorist network” when they arrested hundreds of people beginning in August and continuing through parliamentary elections in October. Those detained included political activists, human rights defenders, and at least two journalistic bloggers who had been critical of government policies that marginalize the country’s Shiite majority.

Independent scrutiny of the crackdown was made nearly impossible by the government’s next action. Public Prosecutor Ali al-Buainain issued a gag order barring news media from reporting on the detentions. A defense lawyer noted one exception: The press could publish government statements on the case. The detainees, including bloggers Ali Abdel Imam and Abduljalil Alsingace, were charged with numerous crimes, including “inciting terrorist acts” and trying to “overthrow and change the political system of the country.”

“Because of the publishing ban on this case, I can’t even comment publicly,” said a Bahraini journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Otherwise I’ll be sucked into this vortex as well.”

Sudanese and Turkish officials have also used terror charges to suppress political dissent. After veteran Sudanese journalist Al-Haj Ali Warrag wrote favorably about a boycott of the April presidential election and suggested that vote-rigging could occur, he was swiftly charged with “waging war against the state.” Warrag left the country, in part because of the harassment, but journalists with the opposition daily Rai al-Shaab met with an even harsher fate. In May, the paper drew the government’s ire with an article claiming that an Iranian-built weapons factory inside Sudan was supplying insurgents. Convicted of “terrorism and espionage” and “inciting sedition,” three Rai al-Shaab journalists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years. During the trial, one journalist claimed that he had been tortured in custody.

In Turkey, four journalists were jailed under the country’s anti-terror law, according to CPJ’s 2010 prison census. All were being held for writing about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in either favorable or neutral terms, CPJ research showed. Using the law, authorities define such writing as “propaganda” and then describe the writers as either members or facilitators of the banned group. The PKK has been embroiled in a three-decade-long armed confrontation with the Turkish government. Ankara has classified the group as an ethnic secessionist movement, and it is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations.


The practice of detaining journalists on unsubstantiated security allegations extends to the U.S. military, which detained at least 14 journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo for prolonged periods beginning in 2001. No criminal charges were corroborated in any of the cases; all of the journalists were eventually released. Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, a 2008 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner, was held by the U.S. military for two years without charge before being freed in April 2008 following a determination that he “no longer presented an imperative threat to security.” Hussein, part of an AP photography team that won a Pulitzer Prize, had been criticized for taking photos of insurgents in combat.

The U.S. detentions, which attracted much coverage in Arabic-language media, provided at least partial cover for regional governments to follow suit. “Emergency laws, state security, anti-terrorism–these things have always existed. But governments have sensed a new opportunity to repress under these pretexts, and they’ve taken it,” said Mikhael of the Maharat Foundation. “Cutting corners is tolerated” under the rubric of counterterrorism, she said, and that was exemplified by the U.S.-administered detentions of journalists in Iraq and elsewhere.

The Iraqi government has picked up the practice. Saad al-Aossi, editor-in-chief of the critical weekly Al-Shahid, was detained and taken to an undisclosed location after he accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of cronyism in appointing senior government officials. Al-Aossi was dragged away from his home in Baghdad in April by what family members described to local journalists as a “mixed force of policemen and soldiers.” Journalists and press freedom advocates told CPJ that al-Aossi was being held at an undisclosed Counter-Terrorism Force facility. He had not been charged with a crime by late year.

Authorities in Egypt and Syria have used long-standing emergency laws to hold journalists in open-ended detentions without due process. In Syria, CPJ research shows, at least 11 journalistic bloggers have been found guilty of antistate crimes under the emergency law in recent years. Tal al-Mallohi, whose online writings were critical only in the most oblique way, was detained in December 2009. The emergency law enabled authorities to hold her incommunicado for 10 months before finally accusing her of spying for the United States, according to the private daily Al-Watan, citing an unnamed security source. No formal charges or supporting evidence were disclosed by late year.

The cases of two Egyptian bloggers illustrate how Cairo continues to exploit an emergency law that has been in effect since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. Mosad Suleiman, known online as Mosad Abu Fagr, regularly wrote about the disenfranchisement of the Bedouin community in Sinai. Arrested under the emergency law, Abu Fagr was acquitted of all charges in February 2008. But authorities invoked emergency law provisions to continue to hold him until July 2010, defying 16 separate court orders demanding his release. Blogger Hani Nazeer was detained in October 2008 after writing articles about Christian minority rights in Egypt. He, too, was held without charge under the emergency law, despite multiple judicial orders for his release. He was eventually freed in July 2010.

“Even when cases have nothing to do with terrorism, they are handled as if they did, because that gives the authorities more latitude,” said Mohamed Abdel Qudous, chairman of the freedoms committee at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate.

By extending the definition of national security to narrow political concerns, and by applying terror laws to the coverage of terrorism, Abdel Qudous said, authorities are harming not only their own citizens, but the international community as well. “Internally, it deprives an elementary right, the right to free expression. And once that happens, other rights always follow.” International audiences are deprived as well, denied the contextual reporting crucial to understanding events. “The news,” said Abdel Qudous, “becomes unreliable, incomplete, and suspect.”

Mohamed Abdel Dayem is coordinator of CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program. He is the author of the 2010 special report, “In Yemen, brutal repression cloaked in law.”