Testimony Presented by Joel Campagna
Middle East Program Coordinator

Committee to Protect Journalists

House Committee on Foreign Affairs
House Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee,
Chairman, The Honorable Gary L. Ackerman

January 22, 2008

Contents :  
Introduction      Tunisia      Egypt    Morocco    Yemen     Conclusion

Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to participate this afternoon. My name is Joel Campagna, and I am the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization based in New York City that fights for the rights of journalists worldwide to report the news freely, without fear of reprisal. It documents more than 400 cases every year and takes action on behalf of journalists and their news organizations, without regard to political ideology. CPJ accepts no government funding and depends entirely on the support of foundations, corporations, and individuals. We are grateful for this opportunity to address this committee.

I've been asked to talk about the state of press freedom in the Arab world. There is little question that press conditions have improved in much of the Arab world in the last 10 to 15 years. More governments have permitted private or independent local news outlets to operate; news on satellite television stations and the Internet is more difficult for censors to reach. International pressure has prompted some countries to loosen restrictions that allow for greater expression of dissenting views. Writers in several countries have aggressively seized on political openings to publish daring news and commentary about corruption and government misdeeds that would have been unprintable just a few years ago. Still, governments from across the region continue to heavily restrict the work of journalists through a variety of controls, and with crippling effect.

Media freedoms vary from the most repressive—countries like Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, or Oman, which brook little or no dissent—to countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen, where new independent media have emerged recently but face considerable pressure from the authorities. Governments continue to dominate the influential electronic media while restrictive press laws and broad emergency powers abound in the region, giving authorities the ability to censor newspapers and imprison journalists with little or no due process. Criticism of heads of state or Arab allies is typically a criminal offense and vaguely worded press laws can be used to retaliate against nearly any type of dissident journalism. Behind the scenes controls such as job dismissals and threats from security agents are common and thrive in an environment where the rule of law is largely absent. Meanwhile, state media frequently carry out threatening or defamatory attacks on outspoken journalists and press freedom defenders in the pages of government papers or on government-run television. Collectively, these pressures have fostered widespread self-censorship on some of the central political and social issues in most countries, including the question of the legitimacy of rulers; the policies of those rulers; excesses of security services; high-level corruption; state budgets; and the misuse of finances.

By exploiting new technologies such as the Internet, Arab writers have circumvented rigid state media controls to express views otherwise prohibited. It is still too early to determine the broader impact of the Internet on free expression and democratic reform; however, online journalists have undoubtedly expanded debate and contributed to a new dynamism in Arab media. As a result, online journalists are increasingly censured by governments fearful of their rising profile and influence. Of the three Arab journalists in prison at the end of 2007 according to CPJ research each was an online writer jailed for his online writings, among them the prominent Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who remains in detention without charge as of today after he was detained by Saudi authorities in Jeddah on December 10.

Today, some of the most crucial press freedom struggles are taking place in countries where governments have sought to roll back gains made in recent years by independent journalists, or where they have sought to eliminate the remaining vestiges of dissident journalism. Some of the most alarming of these attacks on the independent press are taking place in countries considered by the U.S. to be among its closest regional allies. I would like to spotlight a few of those:

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Tunisia, a strong U.S. ally in the Arab world, is a country that often receives little international scrutiny, yet its human rights record is one of the poorest in the Arab world and its press one of the most restricted in the region. Since coming to power 20 years ago, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has virtually eradicated independent journalism from the country. Most newspapers are devoid of any criticism of the government and offer hagiographic coverage of Ben Ali.

Over the last six years, Tunisia owns the dubious distinction of being the leading jailer of journalists in the Arab world—four have been imprisoned for long periods since 2001. The most recent casualty was journalist Slim Boukhdir, who was sentenced last month to a year in prison in retaliation for his online criticisms of President Ben Ali and his family. Boukhdhir was sentenced on trumped-up charges of verbally assaulting a public employee and violating public decency—the kind of tactic frequently used by the Tunisian authorities. Prior to his arrest, Boukhdir has been harassed repeatedly by the police. Shortly after writing an online story critical of the first lady’s brother, he was assaulted by what he believed were plainclothes police as he left an Internet cafe in Tunis in May. The government also refuses to grant him a passport.

The government actively harasses the few independent journalists like Boukhdir who attempt to write critically of the Tunisian government—mostly online or for foreign newspapers—through censorship, surveillance, harassment, and violent attacks. The government also heavily censors the Internet for political content, including local online papers and blogs that are critical of the government.

Recently, the government has even singled out international rights groups for harassment. For the past six months, the Tunisian embassy in Washington, D.C., had refused to provide a passport to Kamel Labidi, CPJ’s Middle East representative and a Tunisian national. Following pressure from CPJ, the embassy finally agreed to give Labidi his passport last week.

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In 2007, CPJ designated Egypt and a leading recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom, citing a dramatic increase in attacks on the press over the past five years. During 2007, authorities waged a steady offensive against critical journalists, bloggers, and foreign media workers and by years’ end a full-fledged crackdown was under way, with Egyptian courts aggressively prosecuting several of the country’s leading independent editors and writers.

In February, Egyptian authorities convicted and imprisoned a blogger for the first time when a court sentenced 22-year-old Abdel Karim Suleiman to four years in prison for allegedly insulting Islam and President Mubarak in critical online posts that accused Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the preeminent institution of higher education in Sunni Islam, of promoting extremist ideas and for calling President Mubarak a dictator.

In late summer, authorities turned their attention to the country’s boisterous independent press, which has been a source of growing concern among top government officials because its vitality and rising popularity that have come at the expense of state-run papers. Authorities charged Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent weekly Al-Dustour, with publishing reports on President Mubarak’s health that were “likely to disturb public security and damage the public interest.” His trial is still pending this year and he faces possible prison time if convicted.

Eissa was also among four independent and opposition editors convicted in a separate lawsuit. Wael al-Abrashy of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Adel Hammouda of the weekly Al-Fajr, and Abdel Halim Kandil, former editor of the opposition weekly Al-Karama, were also convicted. The four men had published articles denouncing President Mubarak’s comments about the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and criticizing high-level officials that included the president’s son, Gamal.

Egyptian authorities continue to be silent about the mysterious disappearance of Al-Ahram editor Reda Helal, who vanished in broad daylight in central Cairo in August 2003. Four years after Helal’s strange disappearance, officials have yet to make their inquiry public or shed any light on the editor’s whereabouts.

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Morocco was the other Arab country designated last year by CPJ as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. In 2007, press freedom continued its downward slide, belying Morocco’s carefully burnished image as a liberalizing country with a free press. Outspoken journalists found themselves in court, in prison, or out of work following a rash of politicized court cases.

In January, a Moroccan court handed down a three-year suspended prison sentence to Driss Ksikes, then director and editor of the magazine Nichane, and to reporter Sanaa al-Aji for denigrating Islam, in connection with a magazine article that analyzed popular jokes about religion, sex, and politics. Ksikes later resigned from the magazine, citing, in part, concern that the suspended sentence could be reactivated if he were swept up in another press case. Morocco lost another leading independent journalist when in February Aboubakr Jamaï, of the weekly newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire, left the country as judicial authorities prepared to seize his assets in the wake of a record-breaking defamation judgment that was widely seen as political retribution for Jamaï’s uncompromising political journalism.

As September parliamentary elections approached, outspoken Moroccan journalists were targeted for government reprisals. On August 4, police seized copies of the beleaguered Nichane from newsstands and confiscated copies of its sister weekly, the French-language TelQuel, as it came off the press. The seizures came after Nichane published an editorial that questioned the point of legislative elections since King Mohammed VI controlled all facets of government. TelQuel Publisher Ahmed Benchemsi, who wrote the editorial, was charged on August 6 with failing to show “due respect to the king” under Article 41 of the Moroccan Press and Publication Law. He faced between three and five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams (US$13,000). One week later, Publisher Abderrahim Ariri and journalist Mustafa Hormatallah of the Moroccan weekly Al-Watan al-An were convicted under the Moroccan Penal Code after the paper reproduced a secret government document detailing the security service’s monitoring of jihadist Web sites. Hormatallah was sentenced to eight months in jail, while Ariri received a six-month suspended sentence.

Only a week before Ariri and Hormatallah were convicted, the U.S. government-backed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approved a five-year, $697.5 million economic aid package to Morocco—the largest grant since the agency was formed in January 2004.

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In 2007, threats against independent journalists continued at an alarming rate, taking on an almost routine air. Perpetrators, for the most part, went unpunished.

In June, in one of the year’s most troubling press freedom incidents, Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of an opposition news Web site and former editor of the online newspaper Al-Shoura, was brought before a State Security Court on vague terrorism charges that carried a possible death penalty. The government made a slew of unsubstantiated accusations, reinforcing the belief among Yemeni journalists and political observers that the editor’s arrest was an attempt to punish him for his unrelenting criticism of the government’s fight against anti-government rebels in northwestern Yemen, as well as his writing about government nepotism. The preliminary evidence against al-Khaiwani consisted of photographs of the fighting in northwestern Yemen, an interview and contact with a rebel leader, and news articles, including one he wrote that criticized President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Al-Khaiwaini was previously jailed in 2004 for incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination for his published criticisms of the government’s conduct in its fighting with rebels.

His case took a dangerous twist in July 2007 when, following his release pending trial, several gunmen abducted him as he attempted to hail a taxi. The assailants threatened him, beat him, and tried to break his fingers. The gunmen also threatened to kill the journalist and his family if he wrote another word against the president or the country’s national unity.

During the year, there were several other cases of violent attacks and criminal prosecutions of independent journalists.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation suspended Yemen’s participation in its programs in November 2005, citing the absence of democratic reform and press freedom. Yet the nation’s status was reinstated in 2007, allowing the flow of millions in development aid.

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Al-Khaiwani’s ordeal and some of the other examples cited above are typical of the oblique tactics Arab governments increasingly use to stifle independent media while minimizing international censure. Instead of persecuting journalists explicitly for their journalism, authorities are turning to subtly coercive tactics that draw les scrutiny. Job dismissals, behind-the-scenes threats, third-party defamation suits, and trumped-up terrorism charges like those brought against al-Khaiwani have replaced the torture, enforced disappearances, and open-ended incarcerations that were the hallmarks of the previous era. Image-conscious governments have also become masters of spin, championing cosmetic media reforms designed mainly for public consumption. 

This is why it is essential for those involved in promoting political reform and media freedom to redouble their efforts to unmask stealth attacks on the press and expose empty media reforms. Policymakers must also work to develop effective ways to promote real change and to speak out when journalists, who are often at the frontlines of the struggle for greater liberties, face repression for their work.

The struggle for an effective free press is destined to be long, arduous, and buffeted by wider political forces. In many nations, the continuing absence of independent political institutions, independent judiciaries, and the pervasive presence of state security services hinder the ability of the press to grow and to exert influence. There are encouraging signs, however. Attacks on the press in the Arab world are on the rise in many countries precisely because journalists are becoming more outspoken in their criticism. The wall of fear that once prevented citizens from freely expressing themselves has eroded, even in the most repressive countries. Most dramatically, the state’s monopoly on information has been broken in recent years by the growth of satellite television and the Internet. Press freedom activists, human rights groups, and concerned colleagues have multiplied in the last decade, providing a voice for besieged journalists.

Without a strong stand in support of these important gains, however, they will be imperiled.

CPJ is grateful for this opportunity to address this important matter.

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