2007 Middle East Annual Report
Media workers were once again this year the victims of the growing regional instability that has plagued the Middle East for decades. 65 journalists and media assistants were killed in Iraq during 2006, bringing to 146 the total killed since fighting began there in March 2003.
More than 90% were Iraqis, who have been in the front line facing the warring religious and clan militias since the departure of most foreign journalists. Their safety, as with the rest of the population, depends on general conditions in the country but their job helps to identify them and increases the risks they are exposed to. Many working for international news agencies now do so anonymously. They are targeted because they are employed by foreign media and thus considered “spies.”
Other journalists are attacked because of the political slant of their media outlet. But the state-run media holds the record for the most journalists killed. Most of the staff of the daily paper Al Sabah and the TV station Al-Iraqiya - members of the Iraqi Media Network - received death threats and 24 of them have been killed since fighting began.
Kidnappings of journalists also increased in the region in 2006 and again most of them were in Iraq, with 17 seized, including seven who were executed.
Six journalists were kidnapped in the Palestinian Territories and used as bargaining chips. All were freed without harm but their captors were not prosecuted. Since Hamas took power in January, media workers have been victims of violent clashes between militants of Hamas and those of the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Dozens have been attacked for working for media attached to one or other of the opposing factions. This is on top of the dangers of reporting on clashes between the Israeli army and the Palestinians. 17 media workers were wounded in shooting by the Israeli army in 2006.
Under the jackboot of dictators
Despite repeated promises, the region’s governments have not introduced greater democracy. Journalists are subject to the whim of monarchs and “life” presidents who keep tight control of the media. The Saudi regime is especially strict and journalists there who step out of line are dismissed with no reason given. Journalists and political activists in Syria, where the Baath Party set up a dictatorship in 1963, face arbitrary arrest and unfair trials. The coming to power in 2000 of President Bashar el-Assad has not improved the situation.
After 20 years ruling Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had not loosened his grip on the media. Independent voices are closely watched and prevented from expressing themselves. In Libya, President Muammar Gaddafi continues to terrorise journalists and criticising him is regarded as treason and can lead straight to prison.
Most countries in the region also use restrictive press laws to control the media. Several promises to revise them made at the start of the decade have not been kept and journalists can still be sent to prison for press offences. Journalists have very little room for manoeuvre and self-censorship is the norm. Media workers in Egypt were dismayed at further restrictions placed on them in a revised press law passed in July 2006. Press offences were decriminalised in Kuwait during the year but many exceptions were made, such as undermining Islamic law and offending God, the Prophet and his aides, all of which carry prison sentences.
The influence of religion
Reporting on religious matters is still tricky and journalists who discussed the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed that appeared in a Danish paper in September 2005 had to face unexpected consequences as the authorities yielded to Islamic protests. Journalists were thrown in prison in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria for reprinting all or some of the cartoons, mostly as part of reporting on the Muslim world’s anger about them.
Instead of calming the crowds protesting at Danish embassies in the region, Arab governments chose to censor the media as a way to curry favour with the Islamists. The episode created a regional precedent and “undermining Islam” became a major reason to prosecute journalists. In Iran, seven journalists were arrested after a satirical article appeared about the late Ayatollah Khomeini, while two in Morocco were prosecuted for printing jokes making fun of religion.