Covid-19, latest ailment to afflict Middle East’s moribund media
While exacerbating public discontent in the Middle East, the Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the worrying state of its media, which are slowly being killed off by repressive policies. The region continues to have 12 countries marked in red or black on the World Press Freedom map, signalling that the situation is bad or very bad. The conspicuous absence of change in these countries is reflected in the lack of significant movement in the Index.
With massaged statistics and media outlets limited to publishing official releases, the Middle East’s most authoritarian countries have used the pandemic to continue or even reinforce their existing methods for gagging the press. Saudi Arabia (170th), Egypt (166th) and Syria (up 1 at 173rd) already exercised almost total control over their media by means of very restrictive press freedom laws and regulators, and they reaffirmed their monopoly of news and information from the start of the pandemic.
In Egypt, where the law allows the authorities to block online media and imprison journalists for spreading “fake news,” the government banned the publication of any pandemic statistics other than those provided by the health ministry, and blocked more than 30 websites and web pages at the height of the pandemic. No journalists were allowed to question the government’s data. The Guardian’s correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, was expelled in March for quoting from a study suggesting that the real number of Covid-19 cases was much higher than the official figures.
The news is also controlled in Syria, where the authorities imposed a blackout on all information about the virus right from the start of the pandemic. While neighbouring countries such as Iran and Lebanon, which have troops in Syria, were already being hit hard by the pandemic, the state media continued to maintain for weeks that there were no cases in Syria, leaving the population in a state of complete ignorance. As in Egypt, the government decreed that the official press agency Sana was the only source of valid information. The governmental monopoly of information in the Middle East is such that even the pro-government Saudi journalists union reported a media audience decline because the public was turning directly to official websites for information, without bothering with media outlets.
Iran (down 1 at 174th) Pandemic brings renewed crackdown
Thanks to its constant ruthless efforts to control journalists, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been near the bottom of RSF’s Index ever since the Index was established in 2002. The situation has worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic because the authorities have been determined to minimise the toll. The government talked of 80,000 Covid-19 deaths but an independent study estimated that at least 180,000 people had died from the effects of the virus. The authorities stepped up information control in both traditional media and online, interrogating, arresting and convicting both professional and citizen journalists. Furthermore, the country that has executed the highest number of journalists over the past 50 years continued the practice in 2020. Rouhollah Zam, the director of the Amadnews channel on Telegram, was executed on 12 November 2020 after being convicted of encouraging the protests against corruption and the economic situation in the winter of 2017-2018.
One crisis hiding another
The situation of journalists in Lebanon (down 5 at 107th) was a source of envy in the region for years but this is no longer necessarily the case. Covering subjects such as corruption is now increasingly dangerous, as highlighted by the murder of Lokman Slim, a journalist and political analyst who specialised in covering Shia Islam and was killed by gunfire. The resumption of street protests, which were interrupted by the pandemic lockdown, has put reporters back on the front line, with attacks on media personnel by protesters and police becoming increasingly common. All of these different elements contributed to Lebanon’s five-place fall in RSF’s 2021 Index, one of this year’s biggest.
At the same time, the Lebanese public’s mistrust of traditional media (which are often linked to political parties) and the ruling elites has been reflected in a demand for freely and independently reported information from alternative sources. Visits to the pan-Arab news website Daraj, which created a special section for coronavirus news, have increased by nearly 50%. This enthusiasm for independent news is a small ray of hope for the media in the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” where the situation for journalists is extremely precarious as a result of an unprecedented political and economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic. Several media outlets have had to lay off personnel or to follow media such as Future TV and The Daily Star, which had already been forced to close. And many of the journalists who still have jobs have not been paid for months.
The right to information has also been tested in other countries in the region, which have tried to cover up the pandemic’s impact on society. Arrests of journalists and publication bans have reinforced existing restrictive measures. In Jordan (down 1 at 129th), two Roya TV representatives were briefly jailed in April 2020 for broadcasting a report showing people in a low-income district of the capital, Amman, complaining about their inability to work as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. As the pandemic continued to fuel unrest, the authorities issued gag orders in August 2020 to prevent media outlets and the public from disseminating photos and video of teachers protesting against a pay freeze.
In Iraq (down 1 at 163rd), media were accused of inciting rebellion and encouraging irresponsible protesting in the country’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region, where a wave of anti-government protests intensified following a freeze on civil servants’ pay and various restrictions on movements. The Kurdistan Regional Government banned NRT TV from broadcasting and persecuted independent journalists, both those covering the protests in the field and those sharing information on social media. Three journalists arrested in October 2020 were sentenced to six years in prison in February 2021 on charges on “undermining national security”. One was accused of spying for Iran.
Overall most of the Middle East’s governments responded to a public health, economic and political situation with increased authoritarianism in an attempt to maintain control. Instead of allowing the press to help circulate reliable information and play a watchdog role, they chose to undermine the already beleaguered media’s freedom even more, with the probability that this will leave lasting scars on the media landscape.
Journalism under constant pressure in North Africa
As a result of constant harassment of journalists and media in North Africa, three of the region’s countries – Morocco, Algeria and Libya – continue to be marked red or black on the World Press Freedom map because their situation is ranked as “bad” or “very bad,” although their citizens continue to demand more press freedom and access to information, as they have been doing since the 2011 Arab Spring.
The region’s authorities constantly resort to judicial harassment of journalists, including arbitrary arrests, interminable provisional detention, repeated trials and trials that keep on being adjourned. In Algeria (146th), manipulation of the judicial system has been particularly blatant in the case of Casbah Tribune news website editor Khaled Drareni, who is also the correspondent for RSF and the French TV channel TV5 Monde. Because of his coverage of the “Hirak” anti-government protests, he was sentenced on appeal to two years in prison for “inciting an unauthorised demonstration” and “endangering state security”. He was finally freed under a presidential pardon after being held for 11 months but his judicial problems are not over: his case is to be retried in the autumn.
Drareni’s case is not isolated. At least three other Algerian journalists have paid dearly for their reporting. Sofiane Merakchi, the correspondent for the Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen, served an eight-month prison sentence after providing several foreign TV channels with video of a protest. Mustafa Bendjama, the editor of the Annaba-based regional daily Le Provincial, was interrogated more than 20 times in connection with his coverage of the Hirak protests and is the subject of three prosecutions because of his Facebook posts. And Ali Djamel Toubal, a correspondent for the privately-owned Ennahar media group, was sentenced to 15 months in prison, primarily for posting videos on social media showing police mistreating anti-government protesters. He was convicted under a law adopted in March 2020 that criminalises the spread of fake news “endangering public order and state security”.
In neighbouring Morocco (down 3 at 136th), the authorities have been targeting four journalists critical of the government – Maâti Monjib, Omar Radi, Imad Stitou and Souleiman Raissouni –some of them for years. Accused of sex offences or threats to state security, charges unrelated to their journalistic work, their trial hearings are systematically postponed and their provisional release requests are usually refused. Radi and Raissouni, who have been in pre-trial detention for eight and 11 months respectively, have submitted no fewer than 10 unsuccessful provisional release requests.
The victims of an iniquitous judicial system that clearly takes its orders from the government, these journalists have even had to put their own lives in danger by going on hunger strike in support of their right to due process. Raissouni announced on 8 April that he was no longer eating. Radi followed suit the next day. Monjib, who has Moroccan and French dual nationality, was released provisionally at the end of March after 19 days on hunger strike and three months in preventive detention.
Increasingly hostile environment
The environment is becoming increasingly fraught and even hostile for journalists and media throughout North Africa. Although much better ranked than its neighbours in recent years, even Tunisia (down 1 at 73rd) has fallen one place in the 2021 Index, above all because of a surge in hate speech against media fomented by far-right parliamentarians. Ever since his election as a parliamentary representative in 2019, Seifeddine Makhlouf, the head of the Islamist and populist Al Karama coalition, has been attacking journalists on social media and in parliament, calling them “liars,” a “disgrace” and a “rabble trying to destroy the country and the revolution”.
Libya (down 1 at 165th) remains in the bottom tenth of the Index because the impunity enjoyed by press freedom’s predators for the past decade continues to obstruct journalism and because the armed conflict between east and west of the country has imposed a state of violence and fear that forces journalists to make a painful choice between self-censorship and propaganda for one or other of the two warring regimes.