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Despite Arab Uprisings, Press Freedom Still Elusive

[Jordanian journalists on 29 September 2011 protesting in front of Parliament against an anti-corruption law that would affect press freedoms. Image by Mohammad Hannon/AP] [Jordanian journalists on 29 September 2011 protesting in front of Parliament against an anti-corruption law that would affect press freedoms. Image by Mohammad Hannon/AP]

Perhaps the most disappointing result of the Arab Spring revolutions that erupted in 2011 is how little has changed for local media outlets in the Middle East. With some limited exceptions among the post-revolution countries of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, the local press in the Arab world generally suffers from the same predicaments of self-censorship, avoidance of government criticism, and reverence for broad “red lines” in coverage that simply aren’t crossed. 

Indeed, the government response in many countries—such as Oman, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—has been to revise and further restrict media and communication laws to ensure that freedom of speech is stifled for both the official media and citizen journalists trying to impart information avoided by mainstream outlets.

International press freedom rankings show that the news media in the Middle East region still operate in a heavily restricted environment. Of the nineteen countries that U.S.-based Freedom House monitors, only Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia, and Israel earn a “partly free” ranking in its 2013 report. The other fourteen countries and the Palestinian territories sit firmly in the “not-free” category. Egypt slipped from “partly free” to “not free” because of the increased harassment of journalists under the administration of President Mohammad Morsi. Israel dropped from “free” to “partly free” because of concerns surrounding military censorship, corporate consolidation, and the independence of public broadcasting (a move that generated some criticism). The French organization Reporters Without Borders measures Israel along with the Palestinian territories, resulting in a far lower press freedom ranking similar to its Arab neighbors. The lone bright spots in the rankings are Libya and Tunisia, both having retained their “partly free” rankings first obtained in the 2012 Freedom House report. 

The lack of greater press freedom for most Arab countries is disappointing since one of the key lessons of the Arab Spring was the public’s desire to receive unfiltered, impartial information. During the 2011 revolutions, many Arab residents turned to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter (as well as international news channels) for sources of information as the heavily censored local newspapers and broadcast stations ignored events in their own countries (this seems to have changed with Tunisia and Egypt where the ability to censor heavily seems to have diminished dramatically). These outlets are either owned outright by the government or are private businesses aligned closely with the government.

Perhaps it is best to argue that despite the overarching patterns that are common across the region, that conditions vary dramatically between countries depending on local nuances.

And when reporters and producers do practice impartial and critical journalism, government prosecutors are ready to issue arrest warrants to stifle this independence. One Jordanian journalist summed up the level of press freedom in his country: “As long as you don’t write about the king, the military, religion or sex you can cover anything you want.” Obviously, these prohibitions represent a sizable amount of forbidden coverage but many Arab journalists have grown to accept the limited freedoms of their profession. 

Speaking broadly about the factors that led to this environment is difficult since each country varies from its neighbors. Still, my research into the legal environment in the Arab world allows me to point to similar characteristics in all Arab countries. 

Defamation—A Criminal Affair

First, criminal defamation is a prominent factor in creating an environment that dissuades good journalism. In countries with greater press freedoms, most defamation cases are handled as civil matters. A defamed party files a civil libel lawsuit and can win damages if they prove that the information untrue and injured their reputation.

In all Arab countries, defamation is a criminal matter. An aggrieved party goes to the police and files a complaint. The police arrest the journalist and the case goes to trial—sometimes the journalist remains in jail while awaiting the court appearance. Unlike in countries with strong protections for free speech, truth may not necessarily be a defense for libel. So, an aggrieved party can potentially win a case by simply proving that what the reporter said injured their reputation. Public officials are often protected with laws that make it an “aggravating factor” to defame them in their official capacity. This, too, disagrees with international norms where many countries have made it harder for public officials to win libel cases in order to create an environment where issues of public concern can be more freely debated. 

Imagine being a journalist who’s uncovered corruption and bribery in a government department. Given the legal environment in the Arab world, it’s no wonder that journalists would simply avoid reporting the story rather than risk going to jail and a likelihood of losing their case—even if their reporting was meticulous and backed up with evidence. 

Earlier this year, Morocco's prosecutors charged a newspaper editor with criminal defamation after he published an exposé about a public official ordering champagne while on a taxpayer-funded trip abroad. His report was verified with receipts. And even in post-revolution Tunisia, a university professor and blogger was charged earlier this year with criminal defamation of public officials. The blogger had documented unethical spending by the former Foreign Minister. Ironically, the professor had criticized an elected lawmaker for making changes to the Constitution that squelched freedom of expression. In Kuwait, an online publisher was sent to prison for defaming the former Oil Minister after he “expressed an opinion that there was a need to combat corruption.”

Other examples of criminal defamation charges are aplenty throughout the Arab world. They are most often used to protect public officials and other powerful figures from charges of corruption. 

An illuminating front-page editorial in the Qatar Peninsula described how the criminal defamation charges hamper good reporting in that Gulf country. The 2011 article, headlined “The crippled fourth estate,” details how a complaint from anyone can lead to a visit from a policeman, a call from a prosecutor in the middle of the night, and other anxiety-riddled harassment. Given that environment, the newspaper asks, who would practice good critical journalism? It blames the situation on the lack of a robust media law in Qatar. But, it’s important to note that the criminal defamation charges in many Arab countries are found in their penal codes, not the media laws. 

Insult Charges a Popular Tool 

Another factor limiting a robust press in the Middle East are laws that ban insults and criticism of rulers or public officials. Not all countries carry both of these laws but most Arab countries do prohibit insults of rulers—a nebulous charge that can be applied widely. A journalist airing valid allegations of corruption in the royal family could easily be accused of “insulting” the king or sheikh. 

Charges for insults have been used in several countries since the Arab Spring uprisings. In Oman, two journalists lost a case in which they were accused of insulting a public official after reporting on corruption in the justice ministry. In Kuwait, dozens of citizens—including opposition politicians—have been jailed for “insulting the Emir” via posts on Twitter.  

Arrests for insult charges have increasingly been directed at social media activists rather than journalists. The move reflects the shifting tide of communication in the region. Years of repressive tactics against journalists have largely quelled them into complacent self-censorship. But, non-journalist activists have taken to the social media —particularly Twitter—to relay information that the local press simply ignores. In 2011, the UAE government convicted five digital activists with “insulting the ruler” and other charges for engaging in a political discussion on a local forum site. They were sentenced to two to three years in prison, but the president later pardoned them. In post-revolution Egypt, activist Ahmed Douma and dozens of others were arrested earlier this year on charges of “insulting” President Morsi. Observers say their speech is nothing more the criticism and dissent. Douma himself was sentenced to jail for six months for his comments about Egyptian President Morsi. Of course, police have also recently questioned Bassem Yousef—who hosts a popular satire television show in Egypt—on charges that include insulting the president.  

Most countries with protections for press freedoms have done away with “insult” laws. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights recently overturned a conviction in France against a man who had allegedly insulted the French president with a sign that contained a profanity. Even that 30-euro fine was considered an abridgment of free speech.  

Fabricating Falsity 

Another tactic used by Arab governments—particularly as they see journalism practiced on social media networks instead of traditional outlets—is the charge of “spreading false news.” In countries with strong press protections, courts have recognized that laws mandating truth in reporting are simply incompatible with free expression. All journalists attempt to be accurate in their accounts, however no reporter or producer can vouch for the veracity of everything reported. The journalistic norm of attribution, for instance, makes such a demand impossible. Journalists attribute information to sources—which may or may not be truthful in their accounts. A journalist should strive for accuracy but a law prohibiting all false reporting can do nothing but create self-censorship and limit public access to information.

These laws against “false reports,” therefore, have one effect—they limit reporting of news. These charges have been leveled against social media activists in the United Arab EmiratesBahrainKuwait, and Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring began. The move is seen as a way to challenge social media activists from spreading information that the mainstream press outlets are actively avoiding. For instance, the international media and human rights observers have been barred from a sedition trial of ninty four people in the United Arab Emirates. The self-censoring local press is the only source of information about the trial, leading many to get updates from social media accounts. In May, a social media activist was sent to prison for 10 months for his tweets that conveyed information about the trial and criticized some of the proceedings. The UAE also updated its cybercrime law in 2012 to include language that makes digital transmission of false information a crime. Article 38 of the law prohibits spreading “any incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading information which may damage the interests of the state or injures its reputation, prestige, or stature.” This law gives the security forces great leeway in charging citizens with a crime over their social media speech. 

In Egypt, the editor of the daily newspaper Al Watan was charged with spreading “false news that could disturb public peace” after a report about the plans of militant Islamist terrorist cells. That case is still pending and shows that “false news” is still a viable charge against the old media. 

Many international courts and legislatures have recognized the need to protect false news in order to guarantee freely functioning press systems. In 2004, the Ugandan Supreme Court struck down a false news conviction. It noted:

A person’s expression or statement is not precluded from the constitutional protection simply because it is thought by another or others to be false, erroneous, controversial or unpleasant… Indeed, the protection is most relevant and required where a person’s views are opposed or objected to by society or any part thereof, as “false” or “wrong.”

Public Order  

Another factor limiting the Arab media are vague laws about protecting the “public order.” In perhaps the most egregious use of such a law, a Saudi journalist was convicted and sentenced to 50 lashings for reporting on electricity outages in 2010. His reporting—in which he noted people were upset about the electricity failure and were considering taking collective action—was accused of stirring up protests and violating public order. 

Many other Arab countries cite maintaining “public order” as a justification for arresting journalists. International jurisdictions tend to create specific, narrow rules for arresting anyone on the grounds of disrupting public order. For instance, in the United States, a speaker must be advocating “imminent lawless action” before an arrest can be made. Such an approach creates a wide boundary to allow journalists to practice their profession and citizens to criticize their government without worry of arrest and harassment.

In May 2013, the UAE government charged an online activist with violating the public order provision of the recently updated cybercrime law. The activist was charged with violating Article 28, which makes it a crime to use digital technology “with the intent of inciting to actions, or publishing or disseminating any information, news, caricatures, or other images liable to endanger security and its higher interests or infringe on the public order.” Such a broad directive makes any report a danger to public safety, leaving little room for good journalism or free expression. 

In 2012, a Kuwait court shut down the largely Shiite newspaper Al-Dar for six months “prompted by two articles that were accused of inciting violations of public order and expressing hate toward certain religious and social groups.” The articles in question had described the movement of Saudi troops into the Shiite-majority kingdom Bahrain during unrest in that country. Such reporting does not appear rooted in a desire to upset public order or create religious strife. 

License to Report

All Arab governments also require that all journalists obtain a license to practice their profession. Countries with strong press protections avoid licensing journalists because the power to rescind a license could be used to influence a journalist’s reporting. Of course, many Arab governments probably appreciate having this leverage over the profession.

In late 2012, the government of Jordan approved new regulations that forced online news sites to register with the government. Many groups spoke out against the move as a means to dampen the independence of websites and them more inline with the timid newspaper press in Jordan. In early June 2013, the government ordered the blocking of 200 news websites that had refused to comply with the registration scheme. 

In May 2013, Iraq revoked the licenses of nine satellite news channels. While they could still broadcast inside the country, the news outlets no longer had the right to gather and report the news in Iraq. The revocations came from Iraq’s media commission, a government body with wide authority to regulate who can practice journalism and what information can be reported. Many of the stations had aggressively covered the Sunni protest movement in Iraq. 

Culture of Repression

But, perhaps the biggest limitation to Arab journalism (and, again, forgive me for speaking in generalities) is the effect of years of repression on the profession. Many journalists simply accept that they cannot do their jobs properly and have acquiesced to the situation. Others, who have been elevated to positions of authority in Arab newsrooms, have become adept at censoring the journalists under them. In countless discussions with journalists in the Arab world, I’ve heard that editors often do the jobs of government officials by killing the stories they sense may cause trouble.

In his book, “The New Arab Journalist,” Lawrence Pintak reveals many examples of self-censorship in the Arab world. An editor for a Saudi paper says “we know our limits and in a way practice self-censorship. There have been troubles when red lines have been crossed.” And an Egyptian reporter working for an Emirates newspaper said he had asked himself “two or three times what will be the reaction” before publishing an article. Another Gulf editor said it plainly: “Our press is infected with the self-censorship virus.”

The effect of this self-censorship is depressing. Perhaps some of the troubles of the Arab Spring—unemployment, government corruption, and stagnant economic growth—could have been addressed if the news media weren’t beaten down by government harassment. But, these issues were ignored by a timid Arab press and allowed to fester. Despite the proliferation of media outlets in some of these countries, the overwhelming stance is for the media to continue to tow the government line. One newspaper that challenged the status quo in Egypt, the Egypt Independent, sadly shut down earlier this year because it couldn’t stay afloat financially.

These broad criticisms refer to the local press in each country and how they cover their own government and business interests. Many press outlets provide laudable coverage of situations in neighboring countries. For example, The National in the United Arab Emirates closely covers arrests in KuwaitOman, and other Arab countries over freedom of speech issues. However, when reporting on arrests in its own country, the paper defers to government statements or muted trial coverage.

Fed up with the old media outlets that self-censor at home, many residents have turned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to give and receive impartial and unfiltered information. The result was an explosion throughout much of the Arab world. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen have all seen their long-time autocratic rulers depart. The state-aligned local media could not protect them. And those countries that haven’t yet seen a change in leadership are worried about their future and keen to stop social media from evolving into a space for free expression. All of the Arab sheikhdoms have made arrests for speech on Twitter—sending an important signal the people that they expect boundaries to be respected. Kuwait has arrested dozens of people on “insulting the Emir” charges, while the UAE has arrested scores of residents (mostly over what they said on social media platforms) and ultimately charged them with sedition. Even in Qatar—which hosts the Al Jazeera and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom—convicted a poet and sentenced him to 15 years in prison because of a poem in which he said that all Arabs lived under similar free speech conditions as pre-revolution Tunisians. 

Silver Linings?

But, it’s not all doom and gloom.

A select few countries are making stilted progress toward establishing greater press freedom. Tunisia has retained its “partly free” ranking earned in 2011 despite a few instances of arrests and other actions against journalists. Journalists there are building a reputation for responsible journalism amid greater freedoms. The news from Libya is also cautiously optimistic with the country obtaining a ‘partly free’ ranking in the 2012 rankings due mainly to an inability of the government to control information at its former capacity as well as a provision in the draft constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression. Yemen still sits in the “not free” category of the rankings, but the country has seen some improvement and notably didn’t feature any journalists’ deaths in 2012. 

Unfortunately, Egypt appears to be sliding back into the “not free” category. Journalists protested the death of Al Fagr photographer Al-Husseini Abu Deif who died in a clash in December 2012. The Constitution passed by the Muslim Brotherhood also contains vague language that can be used to shut down media outlets deemed unacceptable by those in authority. The police questioning of television satirist Bassem Yousef over charges of insulting President Morsi and Islam is quite worrying. However, we should take heart that Yousef never went to jail and Egyptian public opinion appears to be wary of Mubarak-era tactics coming from a democratically elected leader.

In Egypt, a group of media outlets have formed the National Coalition for Media Freedom to fight for freedom of the press issues. Under Mubarak, such an organization would have been unthinkable. The group acts as a focal point for media freedom issues and often issues group statements against abuses against individual journalists. Journalists in Tunisia have also acted in concert for media freedom, enacting a general strike in 2012 to protest encroaching government interference. 

All of these countries have seen a proliferation of media outlets. In Libya alone, sixty nine new media outlets have germinated since Gaddafi’s fall. Whether these outlets will remain free and responsible is still up for debate. Tunisia and Egypt have also seen a proliferation of media outlets—eager to practice a new form of journalism.  

We shouldn’t expect a smooth transition from oppressive censorship to complete protection of free expression overnight. Hopefully, the periodic arrests in countries where we’ve witnessed unrest will lead to a greater awareness of the value of press freedom and help shift the opinion of prosecutors and the public on the futility of such actions.

In the countries that haven’t seen a change in leadership, none have embraced a change from the state-controlled communication model. For these countries, we may have to wait for political change before we’ll see any true gains in press freedom.

[An earlier Italian language version of this article was originally published in Arab Media Report]

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