Human rights violations increased in North Africa and the Middle East in 2002 as governments used the fight against terrorism as an excuse to step up repression. A UN Development Programme (UNDP) report in July reached the damning conclusion that the Arab world had fewer freedoms than any other region of the world at the end of the 1990s, coming bottom when scored for civil liberties, political rights, independent media and other yardsticks.
Attacks on press freedom there often stemmed from the major balancing act Arab regimes have to perform - of satisfying public opinion by yielding to pressure from some Islamist elements (in the government or the opposition) while reassuring Western countries that action will be taken against terrorists. Most of them also bolster their authority, and thus their interests (since they know they have no democratic legitimacy), by cracking down on most opposition activity. They try to focus the attention of their people on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hope they will forget about major internal problems such as poverty, corruption and repression of minorities.
The Arab world has been accused of every crime in the book since the 11 September attacks in the United States, so is keen to improve its image. At a conference on the Arab media, held in Dubai in late April, Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, called for a unified Arab strategy on information matters. "We simply must face the West with a new mentality and modern means to counter this campaign," he said.
The conference also proposed countering the well-oiled propaganda machine of Israel and the United States. Alongside The Voice of America, which Arabs do not listen to much because they see it as too pro-Israeli, the US in 2002 set up Radio Sawa, a radio aiming at a young Arab audience. It began broadcasting in March in Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. It dropped news programmes but continued to broadcast the speeches of President George W. Bush and US secretary of state Colin Powell
In mid-June, Arab information ministers meeting in Cairo allotted $22.5 million to set up a news monitoring centre that would counter anti-Arab statement and produce TV programmes in Hebrew and English for Israel and other foreign audiences.
The ministers were tempted to criticise the Arab world’s most popular TV station, Al-Jazeera, which every day, more and more, breaches the taboos in the region on discussing various subjects. They accused it of giving Israel’s point of view and some suggested it be punished. This was not done in the end but in subsequent months Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan forbade the station, sometimes known as "the Arab World’s CNN", to report on certain topics.
In the spring, a serious diplomatic spat broke out between Jordan and Qatar, where the station is based, after a Palestinian lecturer at a US university said on the station’s programme "Opposite Direction" that Jordan had adopted a pro-Israeli policy.
Against the backcloth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab media stepped up its attacks on the Jewish state with the help of anti-Semitic commentary. At the end of the year, in an effort to "calm" the Americans, Osama el-Baz, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s political adviser, wrote in Egypt’s biggest daily paper, Al-Ahram, criticising the Arab media for their anti-Jewish line. He called on everyone, especially Egyptians (some of the worst offenders), not to be blinded by racism.
In the streets, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raged on and the press was one of its victims. The media was free and independent in Israel but in the Palestinian Territories the Israeli army used excessive and undue force against journalists. Three journalists - an Italian and two Palestinians - were killed while doing their job, to all appearances by the Israeli army. The army’s attitude, deliberate administrative delays and fierce attacks by Israeli officials on the international media were all part of a strategy of harassing journalists, Palestinian or foreign.
Weakened and disorganised, the Palestinian Authority lost some of its capacity to hamper the work of journalists but was still keen to control its image. Its security services as well as armed Hamas militants several times physically attacked journalists.
Despite their individual characteristics, the region’s governments shared at least one - the stifling of the media. The methods ranged from authoritarian (Iraq, Iran and Tunisia) to more subtle pressure, as seen in Morocco and Algeria. Satellite TV stations and the Internet were a real breath of fresh air for Arabs but their governments saw them as a threat and tried to control them. Some managed to (such as Tunisia), while others did so with difficulty (Iran). However, satellite TV is still expensive, so most people do not see it.
The Arab countries still had no independent legal systems in 2002 and were consequently noted for arbitrary arrests (Iran), unjustified trials (Tunisia), legal farces (Lebanon) and special courts (Syria). Many countries were still living under states of emergency (Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Israel and Syria) and abused these powers to arrest journalists and ban newspapers. The media were at the mercy of score-settling and regime dissensions, as seen in the shutdown of a TV station in Lebanon, the arrest in Syria of a journalist of the paper Al Hayat and newspaper closures and arrests of journalists in Iran.
The shackles of censorship are loosening a little each year, helped by the growth of the Internet and satellite TV, but many taboos remain. Heads of state and members of royal families are still untouchable. Discussion of Islamist opposition is always a risky subject. In many countries, the Islamist media was banned or strictly controlled (Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Algeria and Egypt). But the religious question is still a sensitive one and many journalists in Iran were prosecuted for "undermining Islam."
Preparations for a war on Iraq, which some Arab regimes were expected to cooperate with, was a very delicate topic. A report that Syria was making arrangements to receive Iraqi refugees led to the arrest of the Al Hayat correspondent in Damascus. The increasing debate about corruption showed willingness by Arab governments to reassure their Western funding sources. Human rights were also a touchy subject, as in Tunisia, where a journalist had to resign after writing about prison conditions.
The number of journalists arrested during the year was about the same as in 2001, but twice as many media (80) were censored, suspended, seized or banned. The record for censored newspapers was held by Iran, where at least 20 were suspended. Israel had the record for journalists arrested, including more than a score of Palestinians. At the end of the year, Iran was holding the most journalists in prison (10), many serving long sentences. And throughout the year, physical attacks, surveillance and threats were routine.
No journalist was killed in the region during 2002. While many regimes frequently tortured prisoners, this did not include journalists, except for Tunisia, where a cyber-dissident was tortured under interrogation.