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.
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.