Being a journalist in Iran or the Arab world often means not crossing the red lines set by the authorities if you want to avoid the repression of long-established dictatorships, authoritarian regimes or paper democracies. Only the vigorous and irreverent press in Israel has any true independence in a democratic environment, despite pressures on it.
The Middle East was the region of the world with least press freedom in 2003. It had few independent media and journalists in several countries strictly censored themselves. The Iraq war and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict also gravely endangered the media’s freedom and safety.
15 journalists killed
Fifteen journalists and two media assistants were killed in the region in 2003. The Israeli army seriously hampered the work of foreign and Palestinian media covering events in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and did little to ensure their safety. Two cameramen were killed but the army only grudgingly admitted blame and did not punish those responsible.
During the war in Iraq, the outgoing regime’s propaganda and its restrictions on the media were severe. The US army was also very aggressive towards journalists, five of whom were killed by US soldiers during and after the fighting. But US officials made no proper investigation of these deaths.
Harsh regimes stifle the media
The Islamic Republic of Iran remained the region’s biggest jail for journalists, with more than 40 imprisoned during the year, dozens of media censored, trials held mostly in secret and without defence lawyers and very poor conditions of detention. The plight of the country’s media worsened during the year.
Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in Teheran’s Evin prison on 10 July after being tortured, but the subsequent trial of those allegedly responsible was delayed and promised to be worthless since her family’s lawyers were not allowed to see the case file. The press supporting the regime’s reformist wing displayed great vigour but Iranian journalists remained under constant pressure from the justice, intelligence and culture and Islamic guidance ministries, as well as the national security council.
The Arab press remained stifled by repressive and reactionary governments. In Syria, there was no independent privately-owned media. In Saudi Arabia, hard hit by terrorism in 2003, radio and TV remained a state monopoly and the written press was largely controlled by the royal family. But a few media outlets reported growing calls by civil society for political reforms.
The powerful Saudi regime and its harsh censorship served as a repressive example for others, including the governments of Egypt and Lebanon. The outspokenness of the Qatar-based pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera was such a headache for the Saudi authorities that in February they sponsored the founding of a rival station, Al-Arabiya.
In Jordan, Yemen and the territories of the Palestinian Authority, privately-owned media were never safe from threats and censorship and journalists there face imprisonment for defamation or for insulting the authorities or Islam. In some countries, such as Iraq, armed groups or terrorists, as well as political movements, also made strong threats against media that spoke out.
Journalists in the Gulf kingdoms (Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar) were still obliged to strictly censor themselves despite encouraging liberal gestures by governments. In Lebanon, long the only island of media freedom in the Arab world, legal abuses became more disturbing. A state of emergency has been in force in Egypt since 1981, allowing the government a degree of control over the media that it tried to increase during the Iraq war.
The fight against terrorism was also used by some regimes as an excuse for censorship. Several countries, including Jordan and Morocco, passed very tough security laws that were a threat to journalists and the media.
Torn between reforms and old habits
The wind of change blew strongest in Sudan and North Africa in 2003 thanks to presidential or royal decrees encouraging press freedom. Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir proclaimed the lifting of censorship and transferred monitoring of the media from the state security services to the National Press Council. In Morocco, the nine members of the national broadcasting council (set up in August 2002) were appointed in November to help prepare the end of the state broadcasting monopoly and open it up to private ownership.
In Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali announced on 7 November (the 16th anniversary of his taking power) that he considered press freedom very important, that the state radio and TV monopoly would end and that a privately-owned radio station was opening that day.
But the wind of change did not sweep away old habits. The Sudanese state security police continued to oversee the media and have newspapers suspended despite the president’s promises. In Morocco and Tunisia, privatisation did not guarantee independence and the opening-up of broadcasting there was likely to include continued government influence. Five of the nine members of Morocco’s broadcasting council, which was set up without any consultation with the media or parliament, were appointed by the government, which was thus ensured of control.
In Tunisia, where public and privately-owned media remained entirely under government influence, the head of the first privately-owned radio station was a former information ministry official close to the president’s family.
Press freedom suffered sharp setbacks in Morocco and Algeria. Two Moroccan journalists were imprisoned and three others given prison sentences which they were appealing. In Algeria, relations became tense between President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the privately-owned press, which exposed corruption involving the president, his associates and local potentates. Constant arrests and summonses and legal and tax harassment were used to attack newspapers that criticised the president and his aides. One journalist was given a two-year jail sentence for libel.
The authorities in Mauritania also suspended newspapers and imprisoned a journalist. In Libya, the media remained under the thumb of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.