overview of The Middle East and North Africa
By Joel Campagna

Press freedom remains an elusive goal for journalists in the Middle East. While governments continue to display remarkable resistance to local and international demands for greater political liberalization, journalists face familiar obstacles in their attempt to provide independent news coverage. Censorship, legal prosecution, and imprisonment endure as real threats for most journalists, serving as the primary means for state control over the flow of news and information.

Throughout the region, 110 journalists were in prison at year's end for non-violent offenses either directly or tangentially related to their reporting. A more ominous statistic, however, was the nine journalists who were murdered because of their profession. Seven of those deaths occurred in Algeria, where government censorship of the bloody four-year civil conflict has helped fuel a lethal campaign against the press by Islamic militants currently battling the state. Over the past three years, 59 journalists in Algeria have been killed as a result of assassination.

Across the Mediterranean in Turkey, the formation of a new Islamist-led government failed to alter the state's ongoing persecution of journalists who report critically on the Kurdish issue. Seventy-eight journalists now languish in jail-the largest number ever documented by CPJ in a single country. As in previous years, they were the victims of the authorities' indiscriminate use of sweeping provisions to the infamous Anti-Terror Law and Penal Code.

The Turkish government's repression of the independent press was largely symbolic of a growing trend in the Arab world toward applying the rule of law to punish dissenting journalists. In Jordan, the government went on the offensive against what it termed "excesses" of the press, invoking the Press and Publications Law and Penal Code to arrest, fine, and prosecute outspoken journalists. Authorities in Iran, meanwhile, employed their country's press law to similar effect against those journalists critical of government officials and the Islamic Republic in general. And, in Lebanon-once a model to the Arab world with its lively broadcast media-government legislation authorized the official licensing of a handful of television and radio stations with close ties to government officials. Scores of independent stations were subsequently ordered to close.

Elsewhere in the region, abysmal press conditions remained the norm in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia, where the state either asserts direct control over the media or discourages independent journalism through intimidation and the threat of reprisal. The nascent Palestinian press increasingly resorted to self-censorship following the Palestinian National Authority's harsh crackdown on dissenting journalists during the initial two years of its rule.

All of these disturbing developments were offset, to a modest degree, by the Egyptian government's decision in June to amend a series of restrictive legal provisions governing the press. The move came in response to a sustained, one-year campaign by Egyptian journalists and human rights activists who voiced opposition to the draconian legislation. Although flaws remain in existing legislation, the Egyptian government's move underscored the potential for the press to affect change. Across the region, through greater mobilization within their profession and their participation in the burgeoning regional human rights movement, journalists are increasingly vigorous in opposing government attempts to silence them. Creative initiatives to utilize advances in technology such as the Internet promise to facilitate the free flow of information to all citizens in the region in the near future, thus rendering government censorship practices irrelevant. In many countries, however, the success of these efforts will depend largely on the willingness of governments to relinquish their control over the distribution of information services.

Joel Campagna is program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. He has also worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch/Middle East, conducting fact-finding missions to Egypt and Lebanon, and as a researcher for the Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA). Campagna has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

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