Annual report 2008 - Middle East
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Journalists are among the first witnesses, and also the first victims, of the instability that plagues the Middle East. The political and religious divisions in Lebanon, the spectre of civil war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have deep repercussions on media workers, beyond national borders. The region’s chronic instability is used by political leaders as a permanent excuse to silence journalists, whose every criticism is seen as wilfully destabilising their regimes.
The violence in the region has made Western democracies surprisingly unenthusiastic about denouncing human rights violations committed or tolerated by their economic partners there. Defending freedom of expression was apparently not an issue during the visit to France of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi or during the trips to the region of US President George Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Iran’s aggressive foreign policy and the bogging-down of the US army in Iraq have also downgraded the human rights issue in the two countries.
The law of silence
Some countries in the region have started to modernise but a complete opening-up of political life is out of the question. Jordan’s King Abdallah II, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak all talk of more democracy but with some control over the media. Journalists in these countries are accused of crimes and brought to court when they tackle sensitive matters, such as religion, or dare to criticise the monarchy or the regime. A dozen Egyptian journalists were prosecuted in 2007 after complaints filed by members of the ruling party. A journalist in Morocco faces a possible five years in prison in 2008 for criticising a speech by the king and a former member of parliament in Jordan was sentenced to two years in prison in October for criticising abuses in the country on his website.
Press freedom is in no way guaranteed in Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia and journalists there know they must censor themselves on pain of serious consequences. The authorities exert heavy pressure on journalists and especially media owners. Journalists who cross the line are quickly dismissed or even imprisoned in a total denial of justice. Flattery is still the best way to keep one’s job and freedom. The Tunisian media has accepted this and the press gushes with praise for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who celebrated his 20th year in power in 2007. Syrian President Bashar el-Assad’s regime imprisoned several journalists and political activists who called for more democracy.
In the Gulf states, the freedom of expression enjoyed by some satellite TV stations, such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya, were offset by their soft treatment of the governments that host and fund them. An increasing number of prosecutions of print-media journalists in 2007 endangered a budding diversity.
Iran, bottom of the regional list
Iran comes last in the region in the Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom index. Evin prison, overlooking Teheran, is the region’s biggest jail for journalists and at the end of the year, five journalists were still languishing there for “undermining national security” by simply being outspoken. Only journalists in media outlets close to the regime’s leaders (and thus protected by them) are allowed to criticise President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. Independent or community media outlets do not get the same favourable treatment. A Kurdish journalist was condemned to death for allegedly making “separatist propaganda.”
No reforms in 2007
Needed changes to press laws in the region have still not been made and legislators seem in no hurry to decriminalise press offences. Most parliaments in the region have very little power and no reforms will be made as long as regimes want to keep control of the media. The only encouraging sign during 2007 was when United Arab Emirates prime minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum said in September (as an appeals court struck down a prison sentence against two journalists for libel) that he favoured a new press law. Meanwhile, negotiations in Morocco between the communications and justice ministries on one side and journalist unions and media owners on the other reached deadlock.
Journalists were also prosecuted and convicted under the criminal law in Iran, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia. A constitutional reform in Egypt seems likely to immobilise political opponents but also independent or critical journalists.
Arab journalists work in very dangerous conditions and 56 media workers were killed in Iraq in 2007, all but one of them Iraqis. Violence has still not diminished there nearly five years after the fighting began and has forced most foreign journalists to flee. Those who have stayed keep to their highly-protected offices and rarely go into the field, which has meant fewer casualties among them. Reporting is mainly done by Iraqi colleagues and nine who worked for US media outlets were killed in ambushes. These journalists have become the favourite target of armed Islamist groups. Twenty-five journalists were also kidnapped in 2007. The authorities took no action to prevent attacks on journalists and 207 media workers have now been killed in Iraq since fighting started in 2003.
Journalists in the Palestinian Territories were also victims of the fighting between President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and the supporters of Hamas and former prime minister Ismael Haniyeh. The June 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas endangered journalists working for pro-Fatah media outlets and all those who criticised Hamas and its leaders. Many journalists fled to the West Bank, where pro-Hamas colleagues were in turn arrested and mistreated by Palestinian Authority officials. The Gaza Strip became virtually out of bounds for foreign reporters. The kidnapping of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist Alan Johnston for 114 days by a powerful Gaza faction put the foreign media off from sending in any more permanent correspondents and, as in Iraq, reporting was done by local stringers. Along with this inter-Palestinian violence, Israeli army gunfire wounded a dozen journalists covering their operations.
Head of Middle East and North Africa desk