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Arab media: Fall in line or switch off

Most top Arab television presenters and journalists are remarkably candid these days about their survival kit: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

After a brief lull, brought about by the Arab Spring upheavals, they have decided to support their governments and rulers and serve as their mouthpieces. If they hadn’t, they’d have risked job losses, beatings, arbitrary trials, harassment and jail — courtesy of new anti-terrorism laws introduced by Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

These statutes, along with internet restrictions, a whole range of repressive policies and an authoritarian resurgence in Egypt and elsewhere, have effectively hammered the final nail into the coffin of free speech across much of the region.

As a result, the state’s narrative is, more often than not, the only narrative, and officials can relax safe in the knowledge that the media no longer dares hold them to account. “What is wrong with being pro-government,” ask reporters?

“Why should we cry over spilt milk?”

My answer to that is simple: It’s your job.

In Jordan, 95 percent of 250 journalists surveyed in May by a local media advocacy group admitted to practicing self-censorship. Most, according to the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), said they were “too scared” to criticize the king, security forces or tribal leaders.

So much for the freedoms on offer in this much-vaunted “moderate” Arab state — one of Washington’s leading allies in the region and the darling of international donors. But, elsewhere it’s worse.

So why have the lights of free speech and independent media been extinguished across much of the region?

The answer is depressing.

Journalists and editors, who put their career on the line to hold officials accountable, have found a shocking lack of public support.  At every turn they have seen ordinary Arabs give up on basic freedoms and democratic rights for nothing more than vague promises of stability and economic prosperity.

Not that these promises were kept.  Those same people are the first to complain about the soaring price of food, poor basic healthcare and sub-standard education. Where are the promised jobs, they ask? Where, in the face of mounting terror attacks, is the promised security?

Even in Tunisia, the poster child of the Arab Spring, much of the population remains skeptical. And yet opinion polls still indicate that a majority would welcome back the same dictator they ousted in January 2011.

The fact is that people are more afraid of chaos in the region — the civil wars and failed states, the death, destruction and drowning — than they are of “normal” Arab repression by the state. They grew up with it, lived with it for decades, found ways to work around it.  It’s the devil they know.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that free and independent journalism is pretty low down — or non-existent — on their list of priorities, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

That is the sad reality in today’s Arab World.

What is to be done? Should journalists and writers simply give up the battle to serve an unappreciative society and wait for better times? I don’t believe so.

But the cost of “watchdog” journalism will be very high.

Weeks ago, Aazza Hinawy, a television presenter on the state-owned “Cairo” station, was taken off the air after launching an impromptu criticism of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s policies. She was reinstated after receiving a written warning from her employers.

Since Egypt’s first-elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was toppled in 2013, Cairo has come under fire for cracking down on media freedoms. A case in point was the 2013 trial of Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, who were accused of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, jailed, tried and then released in two separate presidential pardons. More journalists have been jailed in the past two years than under Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for decades.

Egypt’s military intelligence arrested Hossam Bahgat, an investigative reporter and leading human rights activist, in early November. He was questioned over an investigation he published in Mada Masr into an alleged secret military trial of 26 military officers who were reportedly plotting a coup. He faced charges of “publishing false news that harms national interests and disseminating information that disturbs public peace.”

The May 11 edition of the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper was seized because of a page-one story, “Al-Watan opens the file of the ‘deep state’ that threatens Egypt and Sisi: the 7 more powerful than Sisi.” The daily newspaper was allowed to hit the stands after editors changed the headline to “7 stronger than reform?”

Television host Reem Maged’s new show, “Feminine Plural,” discussing social and feminist issues, was stopped at the orders of authorities after only two episodes aired on ONTV. The government denied pressure to suspend the show. But Maged, who supported the Jan 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, voluntarily decided to suspend her talk show after the 2013 coup.

A new anti-terrorism law, in force since mid-August, brought in hefty fines of up to US$65,000 for journalists who contradict official accounts of terrorist incidents. The law applies to both local and foreign media.

Many Egyptian journalists have gone back to their pre-2011 habits. They have no qualms admitting on air their relationship with the authorities, their vocation to serve them and their sense of duty towards the military, especially television presenters and talk show hosts, who continue to be the undisputed leaders of public opinion in a country where illiteracy is high.

In Jordan, journalists and editors who benefitted from a short-lived margin of freedom between 2011 and 2013, say they now know which topics to avoid. The list includes Jordan’s war on the Islamic State, terrorism trials, and criticism of Arab leaders who fund Amman.

Television anchor Tareq Abu al-Ragheb, from the privately owned satellite channel Al-Haqiqah International, was arrested in early November for allegedly posting insulting comments on Facebook. He was charged with defamation under Jordan’s Cybercrime law.

This came days after the government ruled that defamation charges could be brought against journalists under the Cybercrime law, bypassing the Press law, which prevents journalists being imprisoned for media-related violations.

In Yemen, continuing unrest makes it a dangerous beat for journalists, with over 40 reportedly abducted by Houthi rebels since they took over much of the country and its media. Journalists require official permission from Houthi officers to leave Yemen if their profession is identified in their passports.

In today’s Tunisia, journalists say the media has never been so free. The government would think twice before telling a journalist what not to write, apparently to avoid a public outcry from an active civil society. But the single largest threat to media today is corruption in the struggling industry itself, as most private outlets are owned by members of leading political parties and want-to-be businessmen. 

However, journalists, many in need of professional training, continue to be tried under ancient draconian press and penal laws.  A draft law on access to public information is awaiting approval by the first elected parliament.

In Bahrain, Zeinab al-Khawaja was sentenced to prison for ripping a picture of King Hamad during a court ruling. The latest case is a sign of the government’s continued intolerance of dissent. Bahrain’s pro-opposition newspaper Al-Wasat was allowed to resume publishing in August after a two-day ban that drew international criticism. Authorities accused the paper of “violating the law and repeated dissemination of information that affects national unity.”

Bahrain’s press was labeled “not free” in 2014 and 2015 reports by Freedom House.

In Syria, local and foreign journalists are deliberately being targeted by the regime, the Islamic State and other militant jihadi groups.

More than 110 reporters have been killed since March 2011 and more than 80 are currently detained. Under threat from all sides, Syrian media figures are fleeing the country in droves. Foreign correspondents rarely travel to Syria. Islamic State-controlled areas have become information “black holes,” from which little or no news coverage is emerging, while several Arab and foreign journalists have been beheaded.

In Lebanon, where newspapers and television serve as the propaganda outlets for businessmen and politicians, the Syrian crisis has reinforced the polarization between pro-Shia media and those supporting the Saudi-backed Sunni coalition.

In Libya, freedom of information is under severe threat from the continuing hostilities.

Against this gloomy background, the 8th annual forum of Arab Investigative Journalists opened in Amman on December 4, 2015, at which more than 300 Arab journalists, editors and media professors — out of 1600 trained by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) since 2005 — are debating growing censorship across the region, along with rising disinformation, ignorance and character assassination.

A lot is expected of them.  They need — and deserve — your support.

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Rana Sabbagh