As more and more people take to the streets in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen to demand democratic reforms and change, the authorities in these countries are responding with violence and are cracking down on the journalists who try to cover these protests.
The Libyan authorities have imposed a news blackout on what is going in the country. It was already very difficult to interview people on the spot before the government began to trying to crush the uprising. It is now virtually impossible for a journalist to work. The few foreign correspondents who were already in Libya before the crisis are kept under extremely close surveillance and have to restrict their movements.
Many foreign journalists are trying to get to Libya, some of them across the land border with Tunisia. Ben Wedeman, a CNN journalist managed to enter the country yesterday morning across the Egyptian border. Some Egyptian journalists also managed to enter from Egypt on the evening of 21 February.
The pan-Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera has accused the Libyan intelligence services of jamming its signal in Libya since 20 February. Its website is also inaccessible throughout the country. The Lebanese TV stations National Broadcasting Network, Al-Jadeed and Al-Manar have also said they are being jammed.
Reporters Without Borders has been unable to obtain any information as to the whereabouts of Atef El-Atrash, a journalist with the newspaper Quryna, since 18 February, a day after he spoke on Al Jazeera about the demonstrations in Benghazi (http://www.cpj.org/2011/02/libyan-journalist-missing-media-attacked-in-libya.php).
According to network security companies Arbor Networks and Renesys, the Internet has been cut several times since 18 February. Traffic has been partially restored but continues to experience a great deal of disruption. Reporters Without Borders was also told that all telephone services, both fixed and mobile, have been cut since 21 February.
The official media have been targeted by anti-government protesters. Demonstrators in Tripoli ransacked the premises of the Al-Jamahiriya 2 TV station and Al-Shababia public radio station on 20 February. Al-Jamahiriya 2 did not broadcast that evening but resumed the next day. According to Foreign Policy, demonstrators took over a public radio station in Benghazi and appealed on the air to international media to cover the repression being orchestrated by “the criminal Gaddafi.”
In their public statements, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his son Seif Al-Islam have openly blamed foreigners for the chaos. “Do not believe these dogs, these TV stations,” Gaddafi said on 21 February.
The violence against journalists has been continuing in Yemen.
In one of the latest incidents, security forces assaulted Zaki Saqladi, a correspondent of the news website AlmasdarOnline, yesterday in the southern province of Ad-Dali, confiscating his car and his camera.
Swiss Info correspondent Abdel-Karim Salam was the victim of a particularly violent attack while covering a sit-in outside Sanaa university on 20 February and had to be hospitalized.
The security forces seized issue No. 18 of the independent newspaper Al-Yaqeen on 18 February in Aden. Editor Abdullah Masleh said the operation was carried out by a special unit assigned to combating piracy and banditry.The newspaper had given the recent demonstrations a lot of coverage, naming people who had been killed or injured. It also published interviews with the head of the Socialist Party parliamentary group and a political scientist, who discussed the possibility of the Egyptian revolution spreading to Yemen. No. 15 had been seized at the end of January.
On 18 February, a group of ruling party supporters attacked Hamoud Munser, the head of the Sanaa bureau of the Dubai-based satellite TV station Al-Arabiya, and an Al-Arabiya cameraman, who was hospitalized. Awsan Al-Qaatabi, the correspondent of Iran’s Al-Alam TV, and Qatar TV cameraman Yasser Al-Maamari were also attacked while covering a demonstration in the Sanaa district known as Kentucky.
Bushra Al-Maqtari, a freelancer who works for the Mareb Press website, was injured by fragments of a grenade thrown by ruling party supporters in the southern city of Taez on 18 February. She was covering a sit-in by demonstrators on a square they have dubbed “Liberation Square” in honour of the Egyptian uprising. Tom Finn, a reporter for the London-based Guardian newspaper, was attacked on 17 February by a group of men armed with sticks, who tried to take his camera.
The Bahraini security forces had previously been restrained in the way they obstructed journalists but snipers in a helicopter fired at New York Times reporter Michael Slackman and cameraman Sean Patrick Farrell as they were filming the violence in Manama’s Pearl Square on 18 February.
The US network security company Arbor Networks reports a 20 per cent decrease in Internet traffic in and out of Bahrain in recent days, which suggests that the authorities are filtering online content in response to the unrest. Connection speeds have also slowed right down.
Late yesterday evening, the authorities nonetheless released 23 human rights and opposition activists who had been on trial since 28 October. Two others who were tried in absentia were amnestied. They included Ali Abdulemam and Abdeljalil Al-Singace, two bloggers who were arrested on 4 September. Reporters Without Borders welcomes their release while continuing to deplore the arbitrary way they were arrested and detained.
They were mistreated and tortured, while all the fundamental rights enshrined in international treaties signed and ratified by Bahrain were repeatedly flouted during the trial. Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights told CNN that, in all, about 100 political prisoners had been freed but another 400 or so were still held.
Spokesman and Director of the Human Rights Bureau of the Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy, Al-Singace was previously arrested in 2009 for allegedly trying to destabilise the government because he used his blog (http://alsingace.katib.org) to denounce the deplorable state of civil liberties and discrimination against Bahrain’s Shiite population.
Abdulemam, a very active blogger and regarded as one Bahrain’s Internet pioneers, was accused of disseminating false information on the pro-democracy forum BahrainOnline.org, a website that gets 100,000 visitors a day although access is blocked within Bahrain. A contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices, he has taken part in many international conferences at which he has denounced human rights violations in Bahrain. He was previously arrested in 2005 for criticising the government on his blog.
Several sources in Iran have told Reporters Without Borders that the authorities have again been blocking the Internet and mobile phone networks since the start of a big protest at 3 p.m. on 20 February. Internet connections have been slowed right down or entirely disconnected in certain neighbourhoods in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashad, making it hard or impossible to browse or send emails. SMS services have been cut since midday on 20 February in several regions, preventing use of Twitter.
There has been heavy jamming of the BBC and Voice of America, while it has become very hard to access Gmail, AOL and Yahoo! in several regions.
Cyber-attacks on independent news websites and opposition sites are continuing. The Voice of America website was temporarily taken offline on 21 February after Iran’s “Cyber Army” hacked into it and posted its own messages (see illustration). The Cyber Army’s creation was announced on 20 May 2010 by Ebrahim Jabari, one of the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. It has been responsible for acts of censorship against websites and networks deemed to be “destructive” and for the arrests of hundreds of netizens. Its website targets have included Twitter and Radio Zamaneh.