Attempts by regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to suppress the flow of information during the region’s pro-democracy uprisings has led a higher number of journalists killed, attacked or arrested.
“At the onset of the Arab Spring, the control of information was a key priority for the authorities,” Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) Middle East and North Africa researcher, Soazig Dollet told IPS.
“Governments tried to ensure a complete media blackout regarding the security force’s repression of these protests by cutting mobile and Internet access while also attacking local and international journalists.”
Tunisia’s uprising in January 2011, which led to the ouster of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, gave birth to a wave of protests that quickly spread across the Arab world. On Jan. 25 Egypt followed suit by calling for the end of president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Given Egypt and Tunisia’s success, other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) such as Bahrain, Morocco, Libya, Yemen and Syria launched their own revolutions.
Although journalists played a crucial role reporting on the demonstrations and their repression, they also faced increasing risks as authorities attempted to crack down on the spread of information. According to a Reporters sans Frontières report, at least 20 journalists were killed and 553 attacked or threatened – making MENA region one of the most dangerous for media professionals.
“Regimes in all countries that witnessed popular uprisings initially tried to black out information,” executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, Ayman Mhanna [Tajaddod Youth coordinator, and DRM executive committee member] told IPS.
“They started with blocking access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, but then realised they should open up these sites to be able to monitor who’s writing what. Then they restricted access to foreign and independent journalists, unless they were totally under their control.
“The situation got a bit better except in Syria and Bahrain. In Syria, foreign journalists are only sneaking in, unless they accept to work under the control of the authorities, which does not guarantee their security; Gilles Jacquier’s death is an example.
“In Bahrain the situation is very difficult. The Gulf Cooperation Countries have a vested interest in blocking the revolution in Bahrain…All opposition media outlets are now censored in Bahrain and the pro-regime media completely distorts the information.”
Human rights advocates have long characterised the Middle East and North Africa as being one of the most heavily censored regions in the world due to the establishment of repressive measures such as regulations and laws, harassments and detention, surveillance and monitoring, and even physical restrictions.
Laws and regulations like the press and publication law, emergency laws, penal codes, Internet-specific laws and telecommunications decrees have been used to permit the jailing of journalists for undermining the reputation of the state as a means of suppressing reports of corruption or scrutiny of government officials.
In Bahrain, authorities use the 2002 Press Law to impose censorship rules. Syria’s penal code allows for the criminalisation of spreading news abroad. In addition, both Syria and Egypt maintain emergency laws that grant authorities the power to search and detain journalists, media professionals and political activists without due process.
“During the Mubarak era, many forms of censorship were taking place. Calling editors-in-chief, stopping particular editions from being printed, confiscating some daily issues, harassing journalists and taking their belongings,” Ramy Raoof, online media officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told IPS.
“These things are still taking place today but by different officials. Instead of people from the Ministry of Interior it happens by people from the military system. For example, on 22 February 2011, a letter from the Army was sent to Egyptian newspapers telling them in brief: Not to Publish Any Content About the Military.”
“Press codes, in most Arab countries, pretend to respect press freedom but in fact leave wide avenues for regimes to violate them. Some articles, such as ‘demoralising the nation’ have been recently widely used in Syria. Accusing activists of treason and cooperation with foreign enemies is another accusation that is frequently used,” adds Mhanna.
One year later, however, as several countries work towards building a democratic future while others continue to demonstrate, the freedom for journalists to do their jobs remains a difficult task.
“Now there are less red lines and journalists can express their opinions more freely because they broke the ‘fear barrier’,” Mhanna said. “However, expressing an opinion has also become more dangerous, whether in countries where the revolutions didn’t manage to overthrow the regime, or in countries where religious extremists are on the rise.
“So in a way, censorship changed in nature. Now it’s the aftermath of what a journalist writes or says that can be dangerous.”
Simba Shani KAMARIA RUSSEAU