Iranian blogger Mohammad Reza Fathi was sentenced to 444 lashes on June 9 because of articles posted on his blog about social affairs and civil rights. He was accused of "spreading lies" and "disturbing the public opinion."
Kurdish journalist Adnan Hassan was released on September 10, after serving 10 years in prison in Iran. Hassan had originally been sentenced to death for defending Kurdish rights for a now-closed local weekly newspaper, Asou. He was the longest serving journalist in an Iranian prison.
Stories like these are not uncommon in the Middle East, an area where journalists often fear for their lives. Journalists are frequently threatened, harassed, arrested, charged, sued, imprisoned, and even beheaded for spreading information and voicing their opinions.
Middle Eastern governments, which are among the world’s most unstable and authoritarian, have gone to great lengths to censor and restrict the free flow of information to present a particular image and to maintain power, with the result being that free press barely exists in the region. Journalists often adhere to traditional forms of censorship as well as self-censorship out of fear.
In the past few years, however, the situation of the press in the Middle East has deteriorated even further.
Oman recently shut down the newspaper Azamn and arrested three of its journalists. Since surviving an attempted coup d’etat in July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey shut down over 130 media outlets and arrested hundreds of journalists. Bahrain is holding an activist who faces up to 15 years in prison because of tweets he published last year. Jordan has banned media outlets from publishing anything about the royal family. Egypt imprisoned 24 journalists this year. Iran created a state-sponsored intranet to stop the flow of information into and out of the country.
The Middle East takes up about six percent of the surface of the earth. But in 2016 alone, 19 of the 37 journalists who were killed worldwide were murdered in the Middle East, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a Paris-based NGO dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide.
“We can’t talk about free press because there is no free press in the region,” Alexandra El Khazen, head of the RWB Middle East and North Africa desk, told The Media Line. “Murder is the ultimate form of censorship. So, when a journalist is killed, which is really frequent, the right to information for the broader public is also in danger.”
Up to the Turkish coup, there were 145 journalists imprisoned worldwide, 65 of them jailed in the Middle East. However, Punto 24, a Turkish non-profit organization dedicated to preserving editorial independence and press freedom in Turkey, has estimated that since the abortive coup, at least 200 journalists have been detained while some 2,308 journalists were fired.
While in detention, many journalists are tortured and denied basic human rights.
This year, every Middle Eastern country, including Israel, has been ranked in the bottom half of the Press Freedom Index, compiled by RWB, with six countries ranked in the bottom 10 per cent.
“Overall, it’s pretty abysmal. It is hard to find a diversity of opinions and editorial independence. There has never been a country in the Middle East that has had full freedom of the press,” Issandr El Amrani, North Africa project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group told The Media Line.
Tunisia, ranked at 96; Lebanon, ranked at 98; and Israel, ranked at 101, are considered to have the freest press in the region. These countries, however, are still plagued by censorship, especially military and political censorship.
Most recently, Mudar Al Momani, a prominent Jordanian journalist who lives part of the time in Jerusalem, has been denied entry into Israel due to “security concerns.”
Nevertheless, media within Israel is considered to be free, enjoys the ability to scathingly criticize the government, all while the power of the military censor is steadily diminishing.
The more conservative countries—like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States—and the more politically unstable ones—like Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Turkey—are usually the countries guilty of the most censorship and the tightest restrictions.
“Journalism is feared by leaders trying to seek stability,” the RWB’s El Khazen added. “The list of topics limited by the authorities is rather long and it keeps getting longer.”
Bahrain, which is ranked 162 by Reporters Without Borders, is guilty of human rights abuses towards journalists. On July 31, Bahraini journalist Hassan Jassim Hasan Al-Hayki, 35, died after allegedly being tortured. Al-Hayki had been in custody for around a month before his death was announced. Several human rights organizations have called on the Bahraini government to investigate the circumstances of his death. According to Freedom House, another watchdog NGO promoting democracy, press in the Middle East and North Africa is 0 percent free.
Change over time?The Middle East has consistently had the lowest rankings in terms of freedom of the press and information. In 2008, eight countries were ranked in the bottom 10 percent and 15 countries were in the bottom half of the RWB Press Freedom Index.
Throughout the Arab Spring uprisings beginning in 2010, press freedom significantly deteriorated because of the wave of mass protests in the Middle East, spurred by civilian dissatisfaction with governments, the economy and corruption.
The protests began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread throughout most of the Middle East, with the largest protests in Egypt.
Since the Arab Spring, there has been a sweeping movement to repress journalists and the press in the region in almost all Arab countries except Tunisia, which seems to be moving towards allowing broader freedoms. Many other countries—like Turkey and Syria and Egypt—have fallen into political and social disarray as leaders have tightened media control and censorship in a bid to retain power.
“The freedom of the press in the countries of the Arab Spring—Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Tunis and Yemen—became more restricted than before,” Mahasen al Emam, director of the Arab Women Media Center in Jordan, told The Media Line.
While the Arab Spring called for overall reform, stability, and democracy, the outcome has been anything but.
“The real result of the Arab Spring is more political turbulence and instability,” El Khazen said. “We have seen a global decline in freedom of information in the region because of the unstable regimes and unstable political and security environments.”
Oman, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are five examples of Middle Eastern areas notorious for tight control over freedom of expression and information in print and online media as well as through social media platforms.
Ranked 125 by RWB, Oman is a country where journalists are frequently imprisoned for criticizing the ruler and his family, Islam, or the political system.
Nabhan Al-Hanshi, an exiled Omani journalist now living in the UK, was arrested twice in Oman in 2011 and 2012 for demanding political reforms in in his country.
Al-Hanshi was arrested on June 8, 2012, and placed in solitary confinement for 54 days. He was sentenced by a court to serve 18 months in prison; however, after posting bail and paying a fine, he was released. He fled the country in December 2012.
“Writing or being a human rights or political activist means only one thing in Oman: it means to be an enemy of the state,” Al-Hanshi told The Media Line.
“In Oman, it is very bad, I can say currently, it’s worse than before,” Al-Hanshi said. “In general, no one in Oman can write or publish anything against the regime or criticize Sultan Qaboos, who has absolute power.”
The West Bank and Gaza StripThe Palestinian territories of the West Bank, ruled by the Palestinian Authority, and the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas, are notoriously harsh on journalists. Human Rights Watch, along with other international bodies, have condemned these governments for their actions.
A Palestinian journalist “Ahmed” (he asked that he remain anonymous) who has worked in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank, recalled a time he was beaten by Hamas in Gaza.
A few years ago, Ahmed and his team were covering a prayer celebration at a local mosque when he noticed Hamas officials beating a man who was praying.
Ahmed immediately began filming the incident. “I was terrified that they would take the tape so I hid it and put in a new, blank tape,” Ahmed told The Media Line. “Then, two guys jumped on me and they beat me with a stick. I started screaming, people began gathering and the chief of police showed up and took the empty tape.”
Egypt, which is ranked 159––right below Iraq––out of 180 countries, is considered to be “partly free.” It has become an unpredictable place for journalists.
“It is the worst time for journalists in Egypt. (Experts and journalists) feel that the regime is being more paranoid and more allergic to any kind of criticism of the regime, its politics or its decision-making. Freedom of expression or independence is shrinking. Journalists don’t even know where the limits stand,” El Khazen said.
News outlets have been banned, both traditional and self-censorship are widely practiced, and Egypt has imprisoned a record number of journalists. Egypt is turning into a police state, according to El Khazen.
“Egypt is a nightmare,” Ahmed said. “I’ve been to Egypt a lot of times and there are a lot of restrictions because you could be arrested for no reason, just because you are a journalist.”
In the past, foreign journalists used to experience more freedom than local journalists; however, as the country continues to fight for stability, even international correspondents are not safe from the regime's iron fist.
Syria, which has been embroiled in a civil war since 2011, is ranked at 177 out of 180 by RWB, making it the least free country in the Middle East. The country is divided between the government and rebel groups.
“There is no freedom for anybody in Syria at the moment,” Liz Sly, the Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief, told The Media Line.
Between kidnappings, murder, and arrests, both local and foreign journalists have fled Syria because it is far too dangerous to work. Most press coverage of the civil war comes from outside the war-torn country.
Foreign journalists have a much harder time covering Syria than local journalists do, according to Sly, who has been to Syria on a number of occasions on both the government and rebel sides.
“On the regime side, (local) journalists are kept under a tight leash. Journalists who try to criticize the government have fled or been imprisoned and those who are left are pro-government people. On the rebel side, it is more chaotic and you see a greater degree of freedom of the press,” Sly said.
“(Syria) is a tomb for journalists,” El Khazen added.
Saudi Arabia, ranked 165 by the Press Freedom Index, is infamous for its crackdowns on journalists and the media. However, unlike some other Middle Eastern countries, this is not a new phenomenon.
“It’s beyond not free,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East Researcher at Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “There is no free press in Saudi Arabia. All press outlets are heavily censored. There is very little public debate and absolutely no criticism of religion, the king or the royal family and anything that is close to criticism is heavily censored, while the person who dared to do such a thing is arrested.”
Journalists and human rights defenders are banned from travel and can be sued and risk being imprisoned for 10 years and condemned to arbitrary sentencing for any criticisms, El Khazen added.
According to Ahmed, when foreign journalists like himself travel to Saudi Arabia to cover a story, they are often accompanied by a government official who acts as a guard dog and deters ordinary citizens from being interviewed for fear of arrest.
Government control over the media has pushed citizens to use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to voice their opinions and opposition.
“The only space of freedom of expression can be found on social media and online but only to a certain extent,” El Khazen said. “People are not at ease criticizing in a free manner because once they become popular (on social media), they are targets of the regime and the regime can find any excuse to silence them.”
As people moved to social media platforms in the past five years, the government has followed suit by monitoring and censoring the internet.
For journalists in the region, like Ahmed, there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
“The fear is not what you are doing now, but what will happen to you in the future,” Ahmed said. “I am trying to show everything that is happening in society but the government doesn’t want this stuff showing up and my fear is being arrested for something I’ve done that the people should know about.”
International bodies and organizations, like RWB, have called on the United Nations Secretary General to appoint a journalist protector to defend the rights of journalists and to increase the spread of unbiased information.
Article written by student journalist Katie Beiter.
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line