Informing the public in North Africa, the Middle East and Iran is a very risky business. Local journalists work in fear of government repression and foreign journalists who come to report on events in a region scarred by violence and terrorism work in very dangerous conditions.
Legislation in the region’s mixed bag of countries stretching from Morocco to Iran is the first block to press freedom, whether emergency measures or press laws. Pan-Arab satellite TV stations have been on the air since the late 1990s, pioneered by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, but authoritarianism and crippling official corruption prevents the growth of truly free news. The Israeli media, protected by laws and court rulings, are very bold and energetic however.
27 journalists were jailed in the region in 2004 for defamation, "insulting the head of state," "insulting Islam" or "putting out false news," half of them in Iran. The threat of prison hangs over Arab journalists and most write very respectfully or just censor themselves. Most Arab governments keep a tight monopoly of radio and TV broadcasting.
When state control of news is not enough to keep the media in line and deny the population’s democratic aspirations, the regimes use threats and physical attacks. The many state security services in the worst dictatorships - Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia - crack down on any attempt to report events honestly and investigate sensitive topics such as corruption, Islamic fundamentalism, social and religious taboos and relations with the United States.
A grim record
The Middle East was a deadly area for foreign and local media workers in 2004 and the 21 journalists killed there were nearly half the total killed worldwide. Iraq was the most dangerous country, with 19 killed while trying to cover operations by Iraqi guerrillas and the chaos in the country since the US invasion overthrew President Saddam Hussein in 2003.
An Italian journalist taken hostage, Enzo Baldoni, was executed by his kidnappers on 26 August and at least 16 other reporters were seized and used to try to extract political concessions or financial reward. French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, along with their Syrian guide Mohammed Al-Jundi, were held for four months by the "Islamic Army in Iraq." The journalists were freed on 21 December and returned safely to France.
The number of foreign journalists in the country sharply declined during the year because of the lawlessness and impossibility of moving freely around the country.
For the first time, a journalist was killed in Saudi Arabia and another seriously wounded in a bomb attack on 6 June blamed on Islamic radicals fighting to overthrow the absolute rule of King Fahd. The two journalists, working for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), had gone to Saudi Arabia to investigate a suspected Al-Qaeda attack in the eastern oil town of Khobar that killed 22 people.
A Palestinian journalist was killed in the Gaza Strip on 1 March, probably as part of Palestinian in-fighting and score-settling during a year that ended with the death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. In the Palestinian Territories, security disorganisation was accompanied by increased violence against the media, aggravating the obstructions caused by the Israeli army.
Dictatorships maintain their iron grip
Five countries in the region scored very low on the Reporters Without Borders 167-country 2004 World Press Freedom Index - Tunisia (152nd), Libya (154th ), Syria (155th), Iran (158th) and Saudi Arabia (159th).
The supposed opening-up of broadcasting in Tunisia to private ownership in 2003 has changed nothing. The media remains enslaved to President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who strictly controls all news. The police regime ensures that citizens and Internet users do not openly criticise the "Tunisian model" vaunted by the president. There is still no press freedom in Libya, despite the astonishing international rehabilitation of President Muammar Gaddafi.
The media in Syria is suffocating under the heavy surveillance of the "mukhabarat" secret police and the Baath Party’s corrupt hold on power for the past 40 years. None of the reforms promised by the young President Bashar al-Assad affected the media, which remain outdated and backward.
Iran is still the region’s biggest prison for journalists, with 13 thrown in jail during the year by judges in the pay of the mullahs and hardliners. Some were put in solitary confinement, without trial or access to lawyers. Others were tortured and mistreated to make them confess. At least 60 were summoned during the year, either officially by a court or unofficially by police or intelligence officials. About 20 newspapers and magazines were suspended or censored and the Internet media was also restricted.
The monarchy in Saudi Arabia does not even try to hide its censorship and control of news and the government and information ministry regularly summon leading newspaper editors to tell them what they can say. Nothing or very little changed concerning press freedom, despite the wealth of the local media.
Insidious but effective threats
Press freedom sharply worsened in Yemen in 2004, with one journalist sent to prison for a year and five others given suspended jail sentences. The one imprisoned, Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, was convicted of libelling President Ali Abdallah Saleh and "supporting a rebel movement" and his weekly paper Al-Shura (The Council) closed for six months. Local journalists, who were still under physical attack, took it as an open threat. The president’s promises of reform and to "work to abolish" prison terms for press offences were not followed by action.
Relations between the privately-owned press and the government in Algeria deteriorated rapidly after the April 2004 re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Several papers that had campaigned against him were the target of tough reprisals, strong financial pressure or frequent summoning of their reporters. Bouteflika, who had vowed to fight "press mercenaries" and accused some journalists of harming the country as much as "terrorists," moved to tighten up the 1990 press law that had allowed the rise of an independent press.
Four journalists were imprisoned and editor Mohammed Benchicou, of the now-closed daily Le Matin, was still in jail at the end of the year, officially not for a press offence but for tax arrears, though the authorities clearly wanted to silence him and others.
Press freedom had a mixed year in Morocco. The blanket pardon of all journalists in prison or whose trials had not yet started was not followed by the expected end of forbidden topics for the media. Two more journalists were imprisoned and some matters remained especially sensitive for the regime, which nevertheless announced it would end its broadcasting monopoly in 2005.
In the Gulf states (Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrein), links between the media, the governments and powerful businessmen are so close that self-censorship is often the only way possible for journalists.
Privately-owned newspapers and radio and TV stations exist in Lebanon despite some threats and physical attacks on journalists. But many topics remain out-of-bounds, including relations with "friendly" countries such as Syria and Saudi Arabia. The pro-government and privately-owned press in Jordan merely reported official policy and radio and TV was boring and unadventurous, which made a US government-run station, Radio Sawa, popular with young people.
Leading journalists in Egypt, even some with regional reputations, were kept in line by financial pressure, fierce social puritanism and self-censorship related to continuing prison sentences for press offences, despite the promises of President Hosni Mubarak.