The Qatar Airways office in Doha. Gulf countries imposed a ban on Qatari flights and many have announced penalties for those reporting critically on recent tensions with the country. (AFP/STR)

Amid Gulf tensions, press is used as a political pawn

By Justin Shilad/CPJ Middle East and North Africa Research Associate on June 8, 2017 5:38 PM ET

Today Bahrain became the latest Gulf nation to put pressure on news outlets amid political tension, when its Interior Ministry announced that anyone publishing support or sympathy for Qatar faces up to five years in prison. The announcement came the day after the United Arab Emirates used the threat of prison to demarcate how journalists can report on the political crisis between Qatar and several countries in the region.

Other countries took more direct action against Qatar, with Saudi Arabia and Jordan revoking the license for Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera to operate in their countries. Their actions reflect a growing trend in the region to use news outlets as a political football during diplomatic standoffs.

Local journalists face the risk of legal action or harassment for reporting critically on allies of their home country or for covering sensitive issues in the region. For instance, CPJ covered how Bahrain's Ministry of Information Affairs shuttered Al-Wasat, the kingdom's only independent newspaper, on June 4 for "defamation of a sisterly Arab country." Editor-in-chief Mansoor al-Jamri told CPJ the order came the same day the newspaper ran a column criticizing the Moroccan government's reaction to protests in the country's northern Rif region.

While CPJ has previously documented cases of Bahrain ordering Al-Wasat to cease publication over its local coverage, the order this week is the first in which the paper was targeted for reporting critically on an ally.

In another case of the press being caught in political tensions, Morocco--which has strained relations with Algeria--deported Djamel Alilat, a reporter for the Algerian newspaper Al-Watan on May 30. Alilat was in Morocco to cover an anti-corruption protest in the country's Rif region.

The method of pressuring news outlets for political sway was given official standing in the region in 2014 when, according to human rights groups, Saudi Arabia used its influence in the Gulf Cooperation Council to pass restrictions that prevent media in member states from criticizing the leadership of other member states.

In Jordan, opinion writer Jamal Ayyoub was detained for 15 days after authorities accused him of disrupting the kingdom's relationship with foreign states, the journalist's son told CPJ at the time. Ayyoub's arrest came after he wrote a column for DAM Press criticizing a Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen against the Ansar Allah rebel movement, commonly known as the Houthis.

Jordan also this week ordered Al-Jazeera to close its local bureau, according to reports. Al-Jazeera condemned the action by Jordan and others in revoking its licenses and told CPJ via email that it will continue to operate. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Al-Jazeera anchor and program host Mhamed Krichen is on CPJ's board of directors.]

Such retaliation against news outlets at times of political tension shows that even when commercial links, diplomatic channels, and flight routes are closed, censorship flows freely across borders--often at the time when citizens are most in need of independent reporting.

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