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Introduction North Africa and the Middle East - Annual Report 2006

No improvement in press freedom amid wars and dictatorships

The freedom and safety of journalists in the region were under heavy siege in 2005 as violence increased with the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The authoritarian regimes in most countries have little respect for basic freedoms and crack down harshly on the media with repressive laws. Heads of state, ministers, security agents and police targeted the media and its representatives throughout the year.

Their excuses were states of emergency (Syria and Egypt), the “fight against terrorism” (Morocco and Saudi Arabia) and “the Islamic threat” (Tunisia). Attacks, threats and imprisonment of journalists are routine in this mixed bag of countries stretching from Algeria to Iran. During the year, 104 media workers were attacked or threatened, up from 73 the previous year. In Iran, prison often means torture as well. In Algeria, just a cartoon can land its author in jail. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, taboo subjects such as corruption, Islamism and religion can also lead to prison for those who write about them.

Self-censorship or exile is often the only solution for Arab journalists. is self-censorship or exile. Most countries still have state monopolies of radio and TV and two-thirds of the 120 satellite TV stations broadcasting in the region are officially subject to government monitoring.

The world’s most dangerous region for journalists

The Middle East and North Africa was, with 27 journalists killed there in 2005, the world’s deadliest region for the media. The lawlessness in Iraq was the main reason and 24 of the 63 journalists killed around the world died there. Most were killed trying to report on the activities of the Iraqi guerrillas and the chaos in the country, but terrorists sometimes broke into journalists’ houses and killed them in front of their families. US soldiers were also responsible for killing 12 journalists and six Iraqi journalists were arrested by US troops on suspicion of helping the insurgents and detained for many months for no legal reason. They were not allowed lawyers or visits from their families or employers.

Foreign journalists, who are more easily identifiable, remain the chief targets of kidnappers, and seven were seized during the year. Florence Aubenas, of the French daily Libération, and her Iraqi guide Hussein Hanoun were held for more than five months before being freed. Fred Nérac, a French cameraman for the British TV network ITN, has been missing in Iraq since March 2003.

For the first time since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, two outspoken journalists were killed there - Samir Kassir, of the Arab daily An-Nahar and the French station TV5, and Gebran Tueni, an MP and managing editor of An-Nahar, who were killed by car-bombs. They had taken anti-Syrian stands and were victims of the very volatile situation since the 14 February 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. May Chidiac, star presenter of the TV station LBC, was also targeted for assassination and seriously wounded.

Lebanese journalists, who enjoy freedoms almost unheard of in the Arab world, now fear for their lives. Some, whose names are on a blacklist, have fled abroad pending the definitive report of the United Nations enquiry into the Hariri murder, expected in June this year.

A journalist was kidnapped and tortured to death in Libya in mysterious circumstances and the authorities have refused to comment.

Censorship everywhere

The governments of Libya, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have total control over news within their borders and are among the world’s most repressive regimes. All are ruled by men who deeply distrust the independent media and freely crack down on dissenting voices.

Iran is still the region’s biggest prison for journalists. At the end of the year, five were in jail there, including the best-known, Akbar Ganji. Pressure by the international community and human rights organisations have often called for his release, in vain. The accession of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency on 3 August did not make things easier and the last quarter of the year was especially repressive, with at least 32 newspapers suspended.

The police state of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who keeps an iron grip on publicly and privately-owned media, exerts wholesale repression. Journalists who deviate from the official line face an array of harsh laws as well as personal and bureaucratic harassment and police brutality. Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr, has been in prison since 1991 for libel and “belonging to an illegal organisation.”

Press freedom is also under attack in Algeria and Morocco, whose governments keep constant pressure on critical journalists and whose independent newspapers have a very precarious freedom. The situation worsened in Algeria in 2005 with more than 100 cases of press offences before the courts. The former managing editor of the daily Le Matin, Mohamed Benchicou, remained in prison with more than 50 lawsuits against him either completed or under way. He is also in poor health.

Libel prosecutions soared in Morocco. Journalists are fairly free there, but the lines set by the royal family must not be crossed and discussing such things as Western Sahara or goings-on in the palace are still punishable by imprisonment. Two journalists, Anas Tadili and Abderrahman el-Badraoui, were in jail at the end of the year. In a rare move, journalist Ali Lmrabet was banned from working as a journalist for 10 years.

Attacks on journalists increased in Egypt and Yemen, with more than 50 foreign and local media workers hounded, attacked or beaten during Egypt’s November parliamentary elections. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has still not kept his oft-repeated promise to decriminalise press offences. The Yemeni national constitution guarantees press freedom but the authorities shut down newspapers and arrested and prosecuted journalists. Opposition journalist Nabil Sabaie was stabbed by armed men in Sanaa on 12 November. Libel suits are routinely used to crack down on those who dare to criticise the government or report on forbidden topics such as corruption, Islam or the judiciary.

The record was mixed in Israel, which greatly respects press freedom within its borders but not always in the Palestinian territories it occupies. Lawlessness and impunity in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, helped gangs to kidnap four foreign journalists.

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2006 Middle East annual report
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