The Arab media paradox: Free expression amid repression

 
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By Khaled Diab

Frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices emerge.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

It is not just the news that is depressing. The state of the media around the world is increasingly becoming a cause for alarm. Tuesday 3 May was World Press Freedom Day and almost everywhere you turn your gaze, media freedom is under threat from governments, terrorist organisations, crime syndicates and corporate interests.

Freedom House’s latest report found that global media freedom was at its lowest level in a dozen years.

According to the Washington-based watchdog, only 13% of humanity enjoys access to a free press. Even in countries where freedom of the press is legally protected and supposedly sacrosanct, the media is experiencing mounting pressure, as governments exploit the threat of terrorism to enact restrictive legislation and populist right-wingers find ways to co-opt or muzzle the media.

A similar message is echoed by France-based Reporters Without Borders whose latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) has registered a growth in violations of nearly 14% since 2013. This reveals “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels” which “is indicative of a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests”.

These violations can verge on the insultingly absurd. An example that would ring familiar with many Arabs was the case late last year of a Thai man who was arrested for “lèse majesté” late last year for allegedly “insulting” not the ailing King Bhumibol himself but his beloved dog in a series of Facebook posts. As is often the case, the real target of the junta’s ire are the allegations the same man published about widespread corruption in high places.

In both rankings, the turbulent and conflict-ridden Middle East props up the bottom half of the global league and, according to Reporters Without Borders, is “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous regions for journalists”. Freedom House concurs, noting that “governments and militias increasingly pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a ‘with us or against us’ climate and demonising those who refused to be cowed”.

Journalists here are at risk from repressive regimes and their security apparatuses, armed militias and terrorist groups, religious radicals, not to mention the threats posed by regressive laws, those above the law or general lawlessness, depending on the location. With all the dangers to life and livelihood which independent media professionals in the region experience, it is almost a miracle that anyone would make journalism their career choice.

The main good news about the region’s media emanates from Tunisia, the only Middle Eastern country to rise in the PFI rankings. But even in the Arab uprisings’ greatest success story so far, journalists still face regular harassment and often exercise self-censorship.

The largescale war against media freedom in the Arab world actually distorts a key and perhaps paradoxical truth: never have Arabs enjoyed freer access to information and never have the region’s journalists and citizens mounted such a constant, consistent and comprehensive assault on the state’s media dominance. This is especially the case in the frontline states of the Arab revolutions.

The most incredible and laudable examples of this must be the journalists and citizen journalists working to record and broadcast the truth in the region’s war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Despite being the deadliest country for journalists in the world, many Syrians continue to put their lives on the line to  report on the crimes and violations of the Assad regime, ISIL and other armed groups. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the award-winningRaqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, a citizen-journalist group reporting independently out of ISIL-controlled territory.

Although government crackdowns have narrowed the space for free expression, frightening and cowing many in the process, the region’s courageous independent journalists have been forcing open the cracks left behind.

In this regard, the digital and social media have been a lifeline. Two prominent examples of this are the audacious and daring investigative journalism sites Inkyfada in Tunisia and Mada Masr in Egypt.

For their part, regimes have been fighting back. Not only have Arab governments invested heavily in surveillance and monitoring technologies, they have also sought to beat activists and revolutionaries at their own game by building up a dynamic propaganda presence online.

But frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they clampdown on free expression and try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices, whether underground or in broad daylight, invariably emerge.

This was amply been demonstrated by the remarkable media and protest campaign spearheaded by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate to defend press freedom, call for the resignation of the interior minister and demand an end to repression.

Although the days are long gone when Arab regimes enjoyed a near monopoly on the flow of news and information within their borders, they still act as though they can control the minds and consciousness of their citizens.

Once upon a time, Arab leaders could figuratively parade without clothes in front of their pliant media and hypocritical “Yes men” and nobody would dare tell the emperors they were nude. Though our leaders would love nothing more than our turning a blind eye to their naked lust for power, millions of Arabs are no longer willing to applaud our emperors’ new clothes. The Arab public has become unwilling to accept illusion and delusion as substitutes for actual change.

It is high time for Arab governments and other repressive actors to learn that the wise way to deal with criticism is not to shut down critical media but to respond to and engage with opponents and critics, and to enact meaningful and deep reforms.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 May 2016.

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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The Arab media paradox

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the general Arab decline in the press freedom rankings, the region’s media have, in many ways, actually become freer.

Monday 13 February 2012

Since the Arab quest for freedom from authoritarian rule rippled out across the Middle East and even beyond from the unlikely epicentre of Tunisia, the region’s hopes and aspirations for freedom and dignity have never been higher, at least since the end of colonial rule.

Against this backdrop, Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) makes for a depressing and demoralising reality check – at least at first sight.

“The Arab world was the motor of history in 2011 but the Arab uprisings have had contrasting political outcomes so far,” the independent media watchdog said. “Most of the region’s countries have fallen in the index because of the measures taken in a bid to impose a news blackout on a crackdown”

The highest ranking Arab country is Lebanon (93), which is just behind regional leader Israel (92). This means that, given all the tied positions, around 100 countries have, according to the PFI, freer media.

On a relatively successful note, Tunisia, which provided the spark of hope which fired up the so-called Arab Spring and has since managed a fairly smooth transition to greater democracy, has risen 30 positions from 164th to 134th.

In contrast, my native Egypt – which captivated the world with its “Tahrir” spirit – has plummeted 39 positions to stand near the bottom of the global league at 166, sandwiched between Laos and Cuba.

Reporters Without Borders puts this down to “attempts by Hosni Mubarak’s government and then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] to rein in the revolution’s successive phases”. These tactics included the arrests and convictions of Egyptian journalists and bloggers, not to mention the harassment of foreign journalists.

And at a certain level this relegation is justified. “The Egyptian media grew inside the dictatorship system, which shaped its values, principles, views and its performance, so we shouldn’t expect to see serious change in media performance [so quickly],” argues Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and columnist. “The window to our freedom of expression is sadly still narrow.”

“Abuses against the freedom of the press have increased significantly,” says Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist based in Cairo who has been closely following the revolution. “In every paper, there is a military censor… Reporters and media personnel are targeted during their coverage of important events on the streets.”

 

Eskandar sites as an example how talk show host Reem Maged and her guest activist and journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy were summoned by SCAF due to on-air accusationsthat the military, which has tried to portray itself as the protector of the revolution, had attacked protesters.

That said, Eskandar feels that his profession has become “more meaningful”. “Politics is now at the forefront of people’s thoughts and the opposition is real,” he reflects. He also admits to feeling freer, despite the obvious dangers of harassment and even prosecution by a military court. “At times like these, it’s worth the risk,” he says.

For all its strengths, the PFI is imperfect and incomplete because it is based on the subjective scoring assigned by various observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical.

It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media. Reporters Without Borders admits as much. “The index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the media in the countries concerned,” the watchdog notes in its methodology.

What this boils down to is that the index can provide a misleading impression about the nature of the media in a given country. For example, someone who is unaware of the nature of the media in the region could easily conclude that Saudi Arabia (158th) enjoys greater media freedom than Egypt because it is eight positions higher in the index.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In many ways, it piles on insult to the injury already experienced by the dynamic segments of the Egyptian media which first faced down Mubarak’s state security apparatus and then SCAF’s military crackdowns, epitomised by the likes of dentist-turned-novelist-and-revolutionary-columnist Alaa al-Aswany whom Foreign Policy named its top global thinker for 2011. In contrast, most of their Saudi colleagues refused or have failed to rock the boat in the kingdom’s stagnant and closely controlled media.

Moreover, just because the regime hounds and intimidates journalists and tries to curb their freedom, that does not mean that it has been particularly successful in its endeavour. Sure, most of the state-owned media remains the loyal lapdog of whoever runs the show, whether it’s a pre-revolution dictatorship or a post-revolution junta.

But, in Egypt, it is really a  tale of two media, with the independent media breaking significant new ground, not only since the revolution but also in the years running up to it.

Although self-censorship remains something of a problem even in the independent media, as demonstrated by the controversy over the shelving of an entire print run of Egypt Independent, the revolution has galvanised legions of journalists and media personalities to take on SCAF as they did Mubarak.

Many Egyptian journalists and media personalities express a newfound pride in their vocation and an irrepressible determination to carry on exposing the truth. For instance, late last year, al-Tahrir TV’s talk show host, the hard-talking Doaa Sultan, dedicated a special episode of her talk show to mount a scathing if melodramatic attack on the Egyptian military and the media and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has co-opted as a fig leaf for its rule.

Moreover, there is a third pillar to Egypt’s media landscape that has overshadowed even the independent media, the social and citizen media, which spearheaded the revolution and refuses to be put down. A good example of this is the defiant blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad who, despite having spent more than 300 days behind bars (including at least 80 on hunger strike), was not cowed into silence. On his release, he said: “We have one enemy, the military regime and its political dictatorship … It is imperative that we bring [it] down.”

And that sense of defiance is Egypt’s greatest hope for the future.

 

This article was published in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 9 February 2012. Read the related discussion.

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Egypt’s fearful development

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptians are slowly overcoming their fear of authority, but old habits die hard.

29 October 2009

Despite the growing boldness of the Egyptian media in recent years, journalists in Egypt always operate with one eye looking over their shoulder. I was discussing this recently with my brother, Osama, who is based in Cairo and has written a number of critical pieces about the president in the international media. I asked him if he was concerned about falling foul of the authorities. He jokingly remarked that the state security archivist must have a fat file on us Diabs.

He admitted that he tried not to think about the potential consequences of his work too much but he was a little concerned that he might not be let back into the country, like the Cairo-based Swedish blogger who was denied re-entry. This reminded me of when I moved away from Egypt some years ago and was not sure whether they would let me out – especially as I’d just been writing about allegations of torture made by the Muslim Brotherhood. With the economy in dire straits, the government was cracking down on everyone from Muslim Brothers to gay revellers – and I still half-expect to be detained for questioning each time I return.

Though I worry about my youngest bro – who is determined to make use of the growing space for criticism and test Egypt’s expressed commitment to freedom of expression – I respect his refusal, so early in his career, to be swayed by a sense of intimidation or fear.

But if I were looking for peace of mind, the latest Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Sans Frontières, did not provide it. It ranks Egypt 143rd (out of 175) in terms of press freedom and reserves a special place for it among the dirty dozen “enemies of the internet”. “The vitality of the Egyptian blogosphere on the international scene is far from being an advantage for the bloggers involved, who are among the most hounded in the world,” the media watchdog concludes.

But this low ranking fails to reflect the paradoxical nature of freedom of the media – and freedom of expression more generally – in Egypt. On the one hand, Egypt possesses restrictive media laws, a large and largely constrained state-owned media, and can come down very hard on those who step out of line – either the small fry or those who have become too big for comfort.

On the other hand, for all its bluster, the regime is fairly weak, a vanguard of Egyptians have a long tradition of courageously struggling for freedom against the odds, the country is home to a vibrant independent press and civil society and many publications get around the restrictive laws by registering abroad. In addition, the new media are sparking a minor revolution, as internet and satellite penetration deepen.

“Despite a state of emergency and draconian laws, Egyptian journalists do their utmost to roll back the limits imposed on them … Despite the legal, administrative and financial pressures they hold their own,” Reporters Sans Frontières acknowledges.

Although Egyptians are slowly overcoming their ingrained sense of fear of authority, old habits die hard, and there are still more than enough journalists around too frightened to demand the change people desire. Fearful of the consequences, may maintain a noble silence, while a minority ingratiate themselves by going against their convictions and beliefs to curry favour with the regime. In this, the media is a microcosm of wider society, with the majority keeping their heads down and a radical minority fighting for change.

The situation in the media got me thinking about the role of fear in Egyptian society as a whole, and what kind of effects it has on the country’s development. Of course, fear is a natural human instinct and an effective survival mechanism – it can even prompt innovation and creativity.

Moreover, there is not a society on earth in which human action is not partly driven by fear. And the fear of ostracisation or material loss can, if exercised skilfully, be as effective as more fists-on forms of intimidation, as the self-censorship exercised by certain segments of the western media demonstrates.

Given all the other challenges facing the country – shortage of resources, overpopulation, poor education, more than two millennia of foreign domination, etc. – it’s hard to quantify exactly how fear shapes development, and I would be interested to learn other people’s thoughts on the subject.

To my mind, all of Egyptian society’s major institutions – the family, the education system, religious institutions, the business sector, the state and the military – are founded, particularly when it comes to the poorer classes, on a culture of stern obedience, with defiance often leading to punishment and, worse, exclusion and marginalisation. But fear alone is not enough. Egyptian institutions, particularly the family, are apt at locking in its individual members through a sense of love and loyalty.

There are, of course, umpteen exceptions to this rule, but it holds often enough to ensure that most people comply passively – and almost voluntarily – with the status quo, making most forms of defiance also an exception and not the rule.

With independent choice often not welcome at home, independent thought not welcome at school and independent initiative not welcome in business or academia, it is unsurprising that not enough people are willing to think out of the box – because doing so runs the risk of landing them in an abyss, rather than on greener pastures.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 26 October 2009. Read the related discussion.

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