Ever since the start of the pandemic, many journalists in the Middle East have expressed doubts about the official figures for coronavirus cases in their countries and have criticized the lack of governmental transparency.
“The coronavirus crisis must not be used by Middle Eastern governments as a pretext for tightening their grip on the media and clamping down on information,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “The measures that are taken to control the epidemic must not in any way affect journalists’ work.”
The authorities have made extensive use of existing control mechanisms. In Egypt, the government has stepped up censorship via the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) and the State Information Service (SIS). The SCMR announced that it was closing news websites for “spreading fake news” about the epidemic and that it planned to block webpages and the social media accounts of people “arousing public concern.”
Two foreign reporters, Guardian correspondent Ruth Michaelson and New York Times Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh were called in for questioning by the SIS. Michaelson was forced to leave Egypt on 20 March, three days after her accreditation was withdrawn over an article questioning Egypt’s then official figure of around 100 coronavirus cases and citing Canadian medical researchers who estimated that Egypt must already have more than 19,000 cases.
Walsh was given a warning for retweeting a message by one of these Canadian researchers. He subsequently deleted the tweet.
Syria, coronavirus news black hole
Syrians remained in the dark for several weeks. The government denied that there were any cases in Syria and the public health ministry announced on 22 February that the state news agency SANA, which is overseen by the intelligence services and the president’s office, would be the sole sources of information about the coronavirus. The first Covid-19 case was officially confirmed a month later.
Doubts nonetheless persisted because of Syria’s proximity and close contacts with Iran, the site of the region’s biggest coronavirus outbreak. Opposition media outlets carried articles reporting coronavirus cases in pro-government regions such as Tartus and Latakia.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, several doctors confirmed receiving orders from the authorities to say nothing about Covid-19. A Facebook page and Twitter account purporting to belong to pro-Assad journalist Rafik Loutf reported the deaths of several patients with Covid-19 symptoms. Loutf subsequently posted a video on Facebook denying that that he was the owner of these accounts and denying the rumours of coronavirus cases.
Apparent media unanimity
The Saudi authorities have held daily press conferences in a show of transparency while the national media have endorsed the official line, praising the example set by the kingdom and its strong response to the epidemic.
The only criticism has been about the treatment of Saudi citizens returning from Iran who are from Qatif, a mainly Shia region in the northeast of Saudi Arabia. Widely shared social media posts have accused Iran of introducing the virus into Saudi Arabia because it failed to stamp the passports of travellers as they left.
A report on MBC, a privately-owned TV channel run by a member of the Saudi royal family, tried to end the controversy by staging an interview with a Qatif resident described as being the first patient to be cured of Covid-19. He thanked the authorities for the way he was treated and said he and his family had been housed in a 5-star hotel during isolation.
Although access to information about the epidemic is essential, exceptional measures of unproven efficacy have been taken in some cases. In Jordan, for example, the measures taken under a state of emergency included suspending the printing of newspapers on the grounds that they could help to spread infection.
In Israel, the prime minister has given the intelligence services the go-ahead to tap into the mobile phones of people who have the coronavirus in order monitor their movements and interactions. This provision is normally reserved for anti-terrorism investigations.
The journalists’ union has asked to the supreme court to order an exemption for journalists, in order to ensure that they are not spied on while moving about in the course of their work, gathering information and interviewing sources. The court has yet to respond.
The rankings of the Middle East’s countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index range from 88th (Israel) to 174th (Syria).