The war in Iraq, war on terror and recent bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have had a profound impact on press freedom in the Middle East, journalists and press watchdogs say. While advances in broadcast technology and a U.S. push for more transparency by regional governments have spurred more open forms of expression, Middle Eastern regimes have launched periodic crackdowns on journalists who refuse to toe the government line, often through the exploitation of recently enacted “anti-terror” laws.
In homes and in coffee shops, Arabs witnessed play-by-play developments in Iraq via television sets and computers. Instead of relying on the rhetoric of government-owned stations or Western broadcasts as they had during the first Gulf War, viewers tuned in to the quasi-independent Arab satellite channels that now dominate the airwaves. Comprehensive coverage was beamed across borders, skirting strict government regulations on what could and could not be viewed by the public.
“If you look at satellite channels and the Internet, they have played a part in the media opening up in some countries,” said Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Although access to information was thwarted in some instances, “it shows that governments are incapable of completely controlling all media sources,” he said.
Influential war reporting by Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, and the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi and Al-Arabiya news channels “spawned other editors in the region to desire and demand independent news coverage” and open outlets for debate, Campagna added.
The confidence Arab journalists gained during the war will impact the future of the region, according to Omar Abdel Razek, a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Arabic radio service. “You can’t separate media from the whole of civil society. The idea of democratization itself will take time, but I think it’s stronger,” he said.
QUELLING ANTI-AMERICAN SENTIMENT
In Iraq, a vast range of publications exploded onto Baghdad’s streets with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian dictatorship.
“There is a real diversity of voices: political, religious groups, sports magazines, commentary on the occupation, new media’s appearing,” Campagna said.
In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration asserted that regime change would create a new atmosphere of liberation and democracy for the entire Middle East.
However, Arab satellite stations have recently come under attack from the United States, which says that their coverage from Iraq was biased and incited violence against U.S. troops.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz accused Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya of bias in their reporting and told Fox News on Sunday that the networks incite violence against U.S. forces with slanted reports that he asserted are funded by Middle East governments.
Al-Jazeera responded by accusing U.S. soldiers of intimidating its staff in Iraq.
“In the past month alone, Al-Jazeera’s offices and staff in Iraq have been subject to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material and multiple detentions and arrests,” Al-Jazeera said in a statement that it said had been sent to the U.S. Embassy in Qatar.
As Iraq enters a postwar phase, the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has lauded the country’s newfound press freedom on the one hand, but issued an order entitled “Prohibited Media Activity” on the other.
InsertArt(1978157)Order No. 14 was enacted to stop incitement of attacks on coalition forces and Iraqis working with them. But the edict, which, according to the CPA’s Web page, allows “onsite inspections of Iraqi media organizations, without notice,” and the confiscation of their property and closure of their premises without compensation, has some Iraqis fearing that the list of prohibitions could be loosely interpreted and used to crush their long-awaited right to free speech.
During the war, Arab countries also felt pressured by the United States to stop their journalists from fomenting anti-American sentiment.
Egypt, recipient of the second-largest amount of U.S. military aid after Israel, arrested and allegedly tortured at least two journalists in connection with antiwar protests, according to Human Rights Watch. Meantime, hundreds of demonstrators were detained but just one remained imprisoned without trial at the end of July. Ashraf Ibrahim was not detained for spreading information, but for accessing material on the Internet, according to Human Rights Watch. Ibrahim, who reportedly shares a cell with 40 convicted criminals, was punished for downloading material from the Al-Jazeera news service’s Web site as well as material on human rights.
ATTACKS SPUR OPENING OF SAUDI PRESS
In addition to the war in Iraq, the plague of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has impacted Arab press freedom in varying ways.
Saudis were outraged when Saudi suicide bombers targeted housing compounds used by Westerners in Riyadh on May 12, killing 25 bystanders. The tragedy prompted journalists and the public to question their Islamic government and the influence of the kingdom’s powerful religious clerics. U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia to hunt down terror suspects also contributed to the government’s growing transparency.
“After the Riyadh bombings, criticism was much stronger than it used to be,” said Mohammed Alawwam, deputy editor of Asharq Al-Awast.
InsertArt(1978159)“I am Saudi. I am surprised. It is unbelievable; they are so open. There is nothing [journalists] cannot talk about,” he said.
Despite the easing of restrictions, Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, was fired after an influential religious cleric called for a mass boycott of the newspaper. The government sided with the cleric, who said that Khashoggi had published articles and cartoons that ridiculed conservative authorities.
“I believe that I was kind of misunderstood,” said Khashoggi in a phone interview from Riyadh, adding that he disagreed with statements that his newspaper had offended Islamic principles.
“I believe we were against fanaticism, against the terrorists whom we are all fighting. We want to expose that (fanaticism) isn’t something we want to live with,” he said.
Although Khashoggi was forced to sacrifice his position, he said his case ultimately served press freedom in Saudi Arabia.
“Everything we called for in Al-Watan was adopted during the national debate session in Riyadh: the encouragement of more tolerance, acceptance of other schools of thought, building international relations….”
“All of those ideas were in Al-Watan, and now they are adopted by everyone else for the future of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The former editor-in-chief added that “things are opening up quite rapidly.”
Although his newspaper was criticized for publishing stories against the alleged misconduct of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or “religious police,” he has since seen at least three stories covering the same topic.
Morocco’s suicide bombings in Casablanca occurred the same week as the Riyadh attacks but had a very different effect on press freedom.
Following the blasts that killed 44 people and injured over 100, staunch U.S. ally Morocco passed new anti-terrorism laws that have already been used to detain four journalists.
Mustapha Alaoui, editor of the tabloid weekly Al-Ousboue, was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence for publishing a claim of responsibility for the bombings. He had broken a new law stating that all information related to terrorism must be handed over to the police.
InsertArt(1978158)Three other journalists were detained under the same law for an “article they published about an Islamist group in Morocco and connections it had with Moroccan intelligence,” Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
He added that journalists in Jordan and Yemen have also been prosecuted under anti-terror laws tacked onto their countries’ penal codes after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The United States should dissuade Arab countries from exploiting anti-terror laws to quell free speech, and “raising the issue would show that the United States is serious about its claims of democracy,” Campagna said.
ON TRIAL FOR TERROR CELL REPORT
In Bahrain, which is generally considered to have fewer restrictions on press freedom than most Arab countries, two journalists are on trial for disregarding a ban on publishing details about a suspected terrorist cell.
A month before the United States and Britain launched the war in Iraq, five Bahrainis were arrested under suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the island, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
InsertArt(1978162)In March, Bahrain’s Alwasat newspaper reported that three of the suspects had been freed. The government subsequently filed a case against the paper’s editor-in-chief, Mansoor al-Jamri, and a reporter at the daily, Hussain Khalaf, for flouting an order not to print anything regarding the suspects.
Al-Jamri said that the news of the suspects’ release had already been published by three foreign news agencies when Alwasat printed it.
“We referred to (the French agency) AFP in our story that was published two days later,” he said. “Our news was not anything about the investigations and did not elaborate other than saying that AFP reported the release of the three.” Al-Jamri added that cases were not filed against the other news agencies.
Both journalists were released on bail after paying about $2,700 each. The last of their three court dates is set for Sept. 22.
If convicted for violating Bahrain’s national security, they will face a minimum of six months in jail.
Despite charges filed against him, al-Jamri said that press freedom is generally improving in Arab countries. “But there is (just) a little improvement, and in many ways any improvement is countered by measures here and there,” al-Jamri said.
Campagna, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, asserted that even the harsh measures taken against journalists in the Arab world may represent the emergence of a free society.
“In Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, newspapers were closed, journalists were jailed…. When the USSR was in power, no one was in jail because no one disobeyed,” he said.
MSNBC.com’s Jennifer Carlile is based in London.