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1. Introduction North Africa and the Middle East annual Report 2002

Censorship and self-censorship: journalists still under dictators’ heels

Television is by far the most popular medium in North Africa and the Middle East, way above radio and the press. Tired of the boring programmes on public-sector channels, viewers in these areas have naturally been turning to European and especially Arabic satellite channels. The most well-known Arabic channel, Al-Jazira, formerly criticised by many Arab states for its freedom of tone, was called to order by several Western states (including the United States and France) from September, and its correspondents were victims of discrimination (in the US and Switzerland). For the first time - like the US channel CNN during the Gulf War - an Arabic channel monopolised information on Afghanistan through its Kabul office and access to first-hand news on the Al-Qaida network. Yet the Qatari channel withstood pressure from the US, reaffirming that it would continue in the direction it had chosen as a medium "offering a margin of freedom in the Arab world".

Another noteworthy fact in this respect was the development of programmes for the youth, since the majority of the population in North African and Middle Eastern countries are under the age of 30. In 2001 the channel "Zen Television" was created in Beirut with the intention of addressing topics hitherto treated with extreme caution: love, sex and politics.

In 2001 the Internet continued its conquest of the region. A survey by the United Arab Emirates site showed that over 3.5 million people in Arab countries used the Internet. The highest penetration rate was in the United Arab Emirates, which had 660,000 users, that is, 24.4% of the population. Cybercafés are proliferating in most Arab cities, including Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. Faced with this formidable expansion, the region’s rulers have a dilemma: while they would like to show that their people are modern and have access to the Internet, they also fear the free circulation of information on the Web. Some, like Tunisia, have become masters in the art of censoring the Internet. However, this type of control requires considerable technical and financial resources and is not always reliable.

In mid-May during a meeting of Arab journalists, "The Arab media forum" in Dubai, a few voices among these representatives of essentially state-owned media were raised against the Arab media’s submission to the powers-that-be. As the managing editor of a Saudi Arabian newspaper pointed out: "the only change [in recent years] has been that governments have become better at gagging us and breaking our pens". This statement, applied to Saudi Arabia, is true for all Arab countries which, with time, have become more and more skilled in subtle forms of censorship.

After Asia, North Africa and the Middle East is still the second biggest jail in the world for journalists. On 1 January 2002, 28 journalists were behind bars, with almost half of them in Iran. Close to 70 media professionals were arrested in 2001 (as opposed to about 40 in the previous year) and about 30 assaulted. The only positive news is that seizures and banning were down from the previous year, with sanctions taken against about 50 media.

Some countries have had the same stranglehold over their media for years.

In Iraq, where they are controlled by Saddam Hussein’s iron fist, the media’s only mission is to relay his propaganda. His son Oudai Hussein, the chairman of many newspapers’ editorial committees, is also responsible for the broadcasting media. Both in the country and abroad, the authorities seek to silence all dissident voices.

In Libya all the media are pledged to the regime of Colonel Kadhafi, even if Libyans have free access to the Internet and satellite television channels. This country has the sad record of the oldest journalist jailed in the world: Abdullah Ali al-Sanussi al-Darrat is believed to be detained without trial since 1973.

In Saudi Arabia the authorities of the kingdom still have a tight grip on the media. Criticism of the government, the royal family, heads of state of friendly countries or the religious hierarchy is liable to a jail sentence.

In Tunisia opponents of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, prevented from expressing themselves at home, have found an unhoped-for mouthpiece for their ideas in the London-based Arabic television channel Al Mustakillah. Within the country pressure on opponents is being stepped up.

Despite the release of its last two jailed journalists, one of whom was Nizar Nayyouf who spent nine years behind bars, Syria has not relaxed its control over the media. Against a background of arrests of major figures of the opposition, a new and particularly restrictive press decree was promulgated in September.

In 2001 Iran remained the largest jail for journalists in the Middle East, with 18 members of the profession behind bars. Some of them were detained without trial for months. For those who were tried, sentences ranged from three to eight years in jail. Within a year the courts, dominated by the conservatives, closed about ten media. On several occasions detainees’ families complained about their conditions of detention.

Even though opposition media do exist in several countries, their freedom is precarious.

In Sudan over 30 journalists have been arrested for addressing sensitive subjects such as corruption or the policies of the Khartoum regime in the south of the country. The only English-language daily was censored several times.

In Mauritania the independent media were harassed by censorship less than in 2000. Yet on several occasions the authorities did use the famous Article 11 of the press code which stipulates that "the interior minister can, by decree, ban the circulation, distribution or sale of newspapers [...] which undermine the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state [...]".

In Egypt basic freedom was flouted throughout the year and press freedom was no exception. One journalist was jailed. Egyptian newspapers, like those under foreign licence, are regularly censored, seized or even closed.

In Morocco the year 2001 was punctuated by numerous attacks on press freedom. Although the three weeklies suspended at the end of 2000 were allowed to reappear under new titles early in 2001, they soon found themselves under pressure from the authorities. During the year no fewer than nine newspapers, seven of which were foreign, were censored for addressing topics considered as taboo.

In Yemen, where press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, the authorities closed newspapers and arrested and prosecuted journalists. Accusations of "libel" were used by the courts to punish those who dared to discuss subjects such as sex, relations with "brother" countries, Islam or the functioning of the judiciary.

After the 11 September attacks in the United States, the Palestinian Authority, for fear of seeing its image tarnished, stepped up its pressure on journalists to prevent them from covering movements in support of Osama bin Laden. During the year Israel was criticised in connection with foreign journalists injured by bullets in the Occupied Territories.

In December 2001 the Israeli defence ministry made public the conclusions of its inquiries which, apart from being superficial and partial, denied all responsibility of Tsahal in most cases. Palestinian journalists, the majority of those injured, encountered more and more problems moving about between the different territories.

Other countries give their journalists more latitude but that freedom is often fragile.

In Algeria there was an outcry in the profession in May 2001 when the national assembly passed a bill to amend the penal code. The new law provides for heavier jail sentences and fines for press offences. Since then several journalists have been sentenced to jail.

In Jordan the year was marked by a setback for freedom in the kingdom. Restrictive measures were taken against the press, triggering a protest movement in the profession.

In Kuwait, the only country in the Arabic peninsula, apart from Yemen, in which press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, a journalist was murdered. It is not known whether this murder was related to his work. In Bahrain self-censorship is still widespread. A noteworthy event in the year occurred when a journalist filed a complaint against the information minister.

In the United Arab Emirates, despite the opening of the only "free zone" for the media and informatics sector in the Gulf countries, the authorities maintain some degree of pressure on the press.

Qatar enjoys relative freedom of tone compared to neighbouring countries - as reflected in the television channel Al-Jazira. In Lebanon two well-known journalists were victims of harassment because of their critical articles on the doings of the army.

north africa - middle east countries list
Palestinian Authority
Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

see also
Annual report 2002

Hard times for press freedom
Africa annual report 2002
Asia annual report 2002
Americas annual report 2002
Europe annual report 2002