The Middle East’s political shifts changed conditions for journalists dramatically. The emerging trends favor free expression, but are filled with ambiguity and depend on the political configurations to emerge after the revolutionary dust has settled. By Mohamed Abdel Dayem
At the trial of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s print media were banned from reporting on testimony by the de facto head of state, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. But the testimony–in which Tantawi contradicted an earlier public statement by the military that it had defied orders to shoot protesters–was reported by bloggers and others on Twitter. With the news broken, traditional media seized on the opportunity to run their own stories that otherwise would have been off-limits.
“New media in this instance furthered the free flow of information because they are not bound by the restrictive laws constricting professional newsgatherers,” said Yasser al-Zayyat, an Egyptian journalist, lecturer, and analyst. “Print media can then provide depth on an issue they were initially prevented from covering.”
Media in the Middle East and North Africa, which had been inching toward pluralism in recent years, contributed to the destabilization and demise of deep-rooted autocracies in 2011. In turn, the dramatic political shifts in the region changed conditions for journalists in ways unimaginable a year earlier. The convergence of traditional and new media is among the major trends emerging after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisian regime in the opening days of 2011.
While these trends favor free expression, they are filled with ambiguity. Much will depend on the political configurations to emerge after the revolutionary dust has settled. In the meantime–because control of national narratives will determine the success or failure of the region’s popular uprisings–journalists will find themselves the targets of new and evolving threats. Here are five trends to watch:
New and traditional media converge: The rise in citizen-generated video footage was central to the ability of mainstream media to cover the revolutions. In turn, had the citizen content not been amplified by traditional media, particularly television, Tunisia’s revolution might have been snuffed out. “Broadcasters simply would not have been able to adequately cover the Arab uprisings without the daily contributions of citizen journalists,” said Mourad Hashim, New York correspondent and former Yemen bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, which aired considerable citizen-generated footage. “This is an instance where revolutionary technological changes enabled actual revolutions.”
The convergence has given editors in traditional media the political cover to address topics that governments had long been able to keep out of view. “When [bloggers] raise certain issues, which then gain traction, it becomes more palatable if we then cover them,” Khaled el-Sergany, then an editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Dustur, noted in a 2009 interview with CPJ. El- Sergany was already leveraging new media in a way that has come to fuller fruition today. Al-Tahrir, one of many new papers to emerge in Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, carries some of the most popular and controversial postings from Facebook and Twitter daily. Elsewhere in its pages, many of the same topics are examined in depth.
Authorities have acknowledged that new media and citizen-generated content are permanent features of the media environment. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces posts its communiqués to the Egyptian people on its Facebook page and nowhere else. More insidious, authorities and their surrogates have established an online presence to intimidate and silence dissenting voices among citizens, bloggers, and professional journalists. The practice is most pervasive in Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, CPJ research shows. Those who are perceived as anti-regime are regularly harassed, threatened, or worse. In Syria and Tunisia, security officials interrogated activists to gain their passwords to social networking sites such as Facebook, while some Internet traffic was apparently intercepted for the same purpose.
“In Syria, a large but undetermined number of people were detained simply for posting what the government regarded as subversive materials, but as the numbers mushroomed, the authorities have focused more and more on people posting news or details on upcoming protests,” said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian blogger and activist who was forced into exile.
A broader political discourse: The disintegration of calcified political regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya has ushered in an era of new journalistic ventures. In a few short months, eight new television stations have emerged in Egypt along with a handful of fresh newspapers, including weeklies that have converted to a daily format. Libya, a country that was virtually devoid of independent media, has seen a burst of new entities, with more than 100 publications, 30 radio stations, seven television broadcasters, and several news websites, blogs, and active citizen-reporters. In Tunisia, dozens of newspaper licenses have been granted, according to the German-funded Tunisia Votes. A new regulatory body in Tunisia also approved requests for 12 radio and five television licenses, although the stations were not operational in late year because the prime minister’s office hadn’t signed off on the applications.
The emerging voices are “an indicator that the clock cannot be turned back–not just in politics but also in the news business,” the analyst al-Zayyat said. “This diversification reflects the multitudes of opinions that exist in society … even when it mirrors messiness and political immaturity, which are also present in society. Media pluralism is a requisite for political pluralism.”
The appearance of a prominent regime opponent such as Mohamed ElBaradei on state or private television, unthinkable in previous years, has become commonplace in Egypt. Critical political analysts, columnists, lawyers, intellectuals, trade unionists, and bloggers of every stripe have become fixtures on Egypt’s political talk show circuit. Mosad Abu Fagr, an Egyptian journalist, blogger, and novelist, could not get his work published in mainstream media before Mubarak’s ouster and spent three years in detention. In 2011, Abu Fagr contributed regularly to the popular dailies Al-Tahrir and Al-Badil, published a novel, and advocated for the marginalized Bedouin community in Sinai.
The rising exercise of free expression was not contained to the handful of countries that underwent full-fledged uprisings; journalists are testing government tolerance for scrutiny in places such as Jordan, Mauritania, and Morocco. In Kuwait, news media assertively reported on a billion-dinar (US$3.6 billion) financial scandal involving members of parliament. Persistent editorial lines–in traditional and new media–forced the government to initiate an unprecedented inquiry and ultimately dislodge the prime minister, who is a member of the royal family, and his cabinet.
But regressive forces have much to lose from media diversity. In Tunisia, where private broadcast licensing lags, official media remain “largely off-limits to dissenting voices and in the grip of remnants of the deposed regime,” said Fahem Boukadous, the last journalist to be released from prison there.
In Egypt, the new broadcasters were operating without licenses in late year, even though they submitted the necessary paperwork. That situation left outlets vulnerable to harassment and closure. One station director said authorities repeatedly told him that his license approval was imminent and that he should keep broadcasting. Yet police shut down that broadcaster, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr (a local affiliate of the Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera), twice in two weeks in what appeared to be retaliation for critical coverage.
In late year, as the military government faced off with citizens pushing for a swifter handover of power to civilians, Egyptian print and TV journalists were pressured to temper their editorial lines. The private television broadcasters ONTV and CBC were each taken off the air multiple times in December as they reported on the confrontations. “We are winning the fight for free expression, but there is plenty of resistance,” said Abu Fagr, the blogger and novelist. “As a result, there’s no knockout punch here, but we are winning on points.”
Evolving threats to journalists: The region’s revolutions have changed the nature of threats confronting journalists. Prolonged, politicized trials on issues such as defamation diminished in Egypt and Tunisia, while assaults and fatalities rose sharply in 2011. Imprisonments rose in Syria, where eight journalists were being held in late year, six without charge. “When you’ve got a revolution in full swing, regimes want fast results–courts won’t do,” said Al-Jazeera’s Hashim. “Beatings, threats, and even murders become the norm in those circumstances.”
Excluding Iraq, where a historic death toll tends to skew data on fatalities, 14 journalists and two media workers were killed in the Middle East and North Africa for work-related reasons in 2011. If Iraq data are set aside, that figure is the highest regional toll since 1995. In Libya, where CPJ recorded a single media fatality between 1992 and 2010, five journalists were killed in 2011. Syria and Tunisia both saw their first media fatality since CPJ began keeping detailed records in 1992. In Bahrain, two journalists died in custody from what the government called medical complications, although there were widespread allegations that the two had been tortured.
The increase in deaths is the most disturbing of a diverse set of new threats to journalists. These include hundreds of instances of abduction, assault, confiscation, and destruction of equipment and footage, usually in an effort to suppress coverage of social unrest. By the end of the first quarter, CPJ had tracked more than 500 such attacks. The majority occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya during their respective revolutions. In Egypt alone, CPJ documented more than 100 attacks at the height of the media crackdown in the first few days of February. Assaults were also documented in Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon.
Assaults continued to take place in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen in late year amid confrontations between restive citizens and repressive regimes. In one tumultuous week in Egypt in November, CPJ recorded 35 cases of gunshot wounds, arbitrary detentions, physical and sexual assault, and abusive treatment in custody, including the withholding of medication.
In pre-revolutionary Egypt, journalists were more often subject to lengthy, contrived legal cases, mainly over defamation and hisba, a legal mechanism allowing government proxies to file claims as citizens concerned with the public interest. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which provides legal representation to journalists, handled 220 such cases in 2010. In the first 10 months of 2011, there were only 39. “But in late year, the number of politicized cases was rising again as journalists started digging on some big corruption and mismanagement cases,” said Rawda Ahmed, lead attorney in the network’s legal unit.
For 23 years in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, critical journalists were subjected to unfair trials and regularly imprisoned. But since Ben Ali’s mid-January departure, only one Tunisian journalist has been taken to court in a defamation lawsuit apparently intended to silence dissent. The case was lodged not by the state or its proxies, but by a private plaintiff whom the defendant, Naji al- Khishnawi, editor of Al-Shaab, had named in an article about the failure to hold to account wealthy individuals with links to Ben Ali’s regime.
The new threats are more unpredictable than traditional censorship, legal action, the withholding of advertising revenue, or other more customary methods. In Qaddafi’s Libya or Hussein’s Iraq, journalists knew what not to do to avoid the state’s wrath. Today, journalists across the region have far less control over whether they become targets of harassment, physical assault, arbitrary detention, or worse.
Legal and regulatory frameworks are changing: Some government agencies in Egypt and Tunisia, long employed to suppress dissent in the media, have been dissolved or have undergone significant structural changes under sustained popular pressure. But uneasy with the pace, reach, and political implications of media liberalization, authorities have sought to reverse many of these gains.
In Egypt, the Ministry of Information was abolished in February, only to be reinstated in July. The abusive State Security Investigations Service (SSI), for decades a journalist’s worst foe, was dissolved in March, but was immediately replaced with a similar security organ, the National Security Apparatus. Also in March, the ruling Supreme Council baldly attempted to censor editors, demanding that all news of the military be approved by the defense ministry before publication. Since then, journalists and commentators were repeatedly summoned for questioning after criticizing the military’s performance on the air or in print. Bloggers Alaa Abd el-Fattah and Maikel Nabil Sanad were jailed in late year after criticizing the military. In September, the Supreme Council announced a return to the enforcement of the Mubarak-era Emergency Law, which allows civilians, including journalists, to be tried in state security courts.
A battery of laws continues to restrict media freedom in Egypt, the Egyptian journalist al-Zayyat said. “Unless those restrictive provisions–over 30 in the penal code alone–are addressed directly, we will continue to engage in window dressing, winning a victory here or there without addressing the core of the problem,” he said. That sort of window dressing has taken place in Tunisia as well. The Tunisian Ministry of Information, long used to hamstring independent media, was dissolved within days of Ben Ali’s fall in January. But the press department at the prime minister’s office has effectively taken on the functions of the ministry, said Boukadous, the Tunisian journalist.
In Syria, the government announced in August that it had passed a new media law that would improve media freedom and end detention of journalists. But CPJ documented dozens of cases of local journalists who were held incommunicado and foreign journalists who were expelled before and after the passage of the new law. In Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, and Mauritania–all countries experiencing protest movements–governments introduced some concessions while simultaneously tightening control in areas where they perceived themselves vulnerable.
“Throughout much of the region, a repressive legal infrastructure continues to exist, but government’s ability to enforce its will has in many cases weakened,” Al-Jazeera’s Hashim told CPJ. “So the authorities are sometimes compelled to adjust the rules, in part to give the appearance of having conceded something but also to deny critical journalists familiarity.”
Trying to stave off growing protests, Jordan’s King Abdullah approved modest constitutional reforms in September relating mostly to political parties and elections. At the same time, the lower house of parliament passed an anti-corruption bill that would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism by imposing high fines for publishing information on corruption. Similarly, Morocco passed by referendum constitutional reforms that marginally fulfilled popular demands for increased pluralism, but had little effect on media freedoms. Three weeks before the referendum, authorities sentenced outspoken editor Rachid Nini to a year in prison on antistate charges that CPJ found to be baseless.
In another effort to quell popular unrest, the Algerian government announced a package of proposed reforms that, among other things, would allow for private television and radio broadcasters, the creation of a committee to regulate the media in place of the justice ministry, and an end to prison terms for journalists convicted of defamation. But the measure, passed by parliament in December, also includes more than 30 vaguely worded articles that could be used to limit press freedom and punish critical reporting.
In Mauritania, after weeks of social unrest, the government in September lifted a prohibition against private broadcasters for the first time in the country’s history, but erected steep financial and administrative barriers that many local journalists viewed as a continuation of the government’s broadcast monopoly through other means. Parliament also approved a law eliminating prison terms for journalists convicted of insulting the president, foreign heads of state, or other diplomatic entities, replacing them with heavy monetary fines.
Emerging media freedom groups: The emergence of new voices extends to associations that aspire to represent journalists. A number of new or previously sidelined organizations have begun making themselves heard.
The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, whose democratically elected board was decimated in a sustained campaign of intimidation by Ben Ali’s regime in 2009, held recent elections that saw most of its previous leadership restored. The leading local press freedom group Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse, de L’Edition et de la Création, founded in 2001 and almost immediately banned, was granted a license to operate shortly after Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian Committee for the Protection of Journalists, established in 2008 and also immediately banned, was reconstituted in February and received a license to operate under the new name of the Tunisia Center for Press Freedom. It has since documented emerging threats to the press across the country.
In Egypt, where membership in the officially sanctioned journalists’ syndicate has always been restricted to print journalists, several groups were working to establish alternative bodies to represent journalists in other media. In April, more than 30 local human rights groups, unions, research organizations, and a dozen of Egypt’s most prominent press freedom advocates formed the National Coalition for Media Freedom, which seeks to improve working conditions for journalists, particularly through the reform of legislation long used to restrict coverage.
And in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, critics say the officially sanctioned Bahraini Journalists Association has long been ineffectual. Although the association disputes the assertion, a new group has emerged to represent journalists inside Bahrain and in exile. Nada al-Wadi, a board member of the new, London-based Bahrain Press Association, told CPJ that the government-approved body “never represented the real concerns of working journalists.” Al-Wadi’s group is trying to change that. Its inaugural project was a 60-page report detailing hundreds of attacks on local and international media between February and September.
“The Bahrain Press Association is not pro- or anti-opposition,” al-Wadi said. “It is pro-reporting.”
Mohamed Abdel Dayem is CPJ’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. He is the author of the 2009 CPJ report “Middle East bloggers: The street leads online.”