The Yemeni army besieges a newspaper to prevent a certain item of news from entering the public domain. In Kuwait journalists are convicted for uncovering a rigged horse race: Arab regimes are making a laughing stock of themselves as they endeavour to restrict the freedom of the media. By Hamid Skif
Life is tough for journalists in the Arab world right now – a lamentable fact confirmed as the world marked Press Freedom Day last May. While this freedom continues to be improved and enhanced on the rest of the planet, the Arab world is experiencing Kafkaesque situations in this regard. Every attempt to express a free opinion is, also through the application of force, nipped in the bud.
Wayward journalists are imprisoned or beaten up, with or without the addition of seemingly grotesque trials, newspapers are shut down or providers of satellite media are pressured to block critical radio or television programmes broadcast from abroad. Algeria and Saudi Arabia have excelled at this in particular.
Arab regimes appear to enjoy making themselves look risible, with actual cases such as that of the journalists convicted for uncovering a rigged horse race in Kuwait, or publishing a caricature of a cousin of the Moroccan leader. Not to mention the occasion when the Yemeni army besieged a newspaper to prevent an item of news entering the public domain.
It appears that power elites everywhere have put their heads together and agreed that no free media should exist on their territory. This is certainly nothing new, but the fact that the situation persists is evidence of just how inflexibly and obstinately these regimes cling to the status quo.
The Internet: In league with the devil
The new hobby of Arab dictatorships is control of the Internet, which is viewed as a force in league with the devil. Although access to the Internet is infinitesimal, the web has become an enemy against which special laws were enacted and special units mobilised. The concept of "Internet crime" – a term that covers everything deemed by censors to represent an attack on morals and criticism of the contemptible deeds of the regime – has already notched up dozens of victims within the blogger community.
Not a week passes without an arrest or a trial providing the secret headlines to this fight for freedom, a fight that seldom has repercussions abroad. The repression is organised at whim, in the firm conviction that the support of western countries, which was exchanged for complicity, silence at the UN or several economic advantages, nips any impulse for protest in the bud.
Appeal for a free television service
The state of Arab media is neatly summed up by an appeal recently issued by three journalists for a peaceful demonstration outside an Algerian television station nicknamed by the general public "orphan" or "the one and only": "There is no way around the realisation that there has been terrible retrogression as regards general freedoms, and in particular press freedom," they write, and continue thus: "Censorship dominates all areas of public expression. The freedom of print media to decide themselves which tone to adopt, a freedom that also always served the regime as an advertisement for its farcical understanding of democracy, is today markedly impaired and has been fitted with a gag that was not there before.
"We call on Algerians to mobilise themselves to demand the opening of audio visual media to independent initiatives, the lifting of controls on public media, to liberate images and sound, and hand Algerian television over to the Algerians, so that it can fulfil its true function as a public service. It is time to allow Algerians to set up alternative broadcasters that better represent them and reflect the political and social reality of our country."
The authors of this text, which could have been written, with minimal amendments, by any Arab journalist, were temporarily detained by the police on May 3rd and interrogated over a number of hours. The Algerian State Secretary for Communication postponed the liberalisation of audiovisual media until 2015, thereby contravening a law on media reporting passed in 1990.
A catalogue of repression from Tunisia to Israel
It is hardly better elsewhere. Alongside Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Tunisia is, under the undivided power of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, right up there on the hit list of most repressive countries with respect to freedom of expression.
When the Tunisian journalist Tawfik Ben Brik was freed after six months in jail for criticising the presidential "elections", we discovered that the appeal hearing of his colleague Fahem Boukadous was postponed until June 22nd due to continued hospital treatment.
Boukadous had been sentenced to four years in prison for his coverage of violent labour demonstrations in the Gafsa mining region for a satellite broadcaster. In his case, the regime did not even think it necessary to fake a trial using every trick in the book, as they were wont to do for Ben Brik and the human rights activist Zouhaïer Makhlouf, victim of a proper beating at the hands of Tunis police officers on April 24th.
As far the Gulf states are concerned, Kuwait has just joined the group of countries that demonstrate impatience with anyone attempting to express a free opinion: the persecution of the writer and journalist Mohamed Abdel Qader al-Jassem, detained on May 18th for something he had written in the year 2006, bears testimony to this. The author, a victim of the Prime Minister's grim determination, has now embarked on a hunger strike despite his precarious health.
In the Israeli occupied territories, Palestinian journalists are repeatedly subjected to harassment by the Israeli army, especially in the vicinity of the separation barrier that the occupier is currently erecting through Palestinian areas. More than 60 aggressions of this nature have been recorded since 2009. The Israelis are trying to stem the flow of all information coming out of the Palestinian territories, and Israeli security forces set their sights in particular on cameramen and women, as well as photographers. But unfortunately, this persistent aggravation of Palestinian journalists finds no echo in western media.
A lack of credible organisations
In view of the present situation in the Arab world, it would be hard to imagine the existence of any trade union organisations with clout. But the fact that such organisations are lacking is a great handicap for a profession that is exposed to all manner of abuse.
Any national organisations that do exist are just empty husks. These are simply propaganda tools of regimes that are masters in the conformity of every free initiative.
For example, during a Union of Arab Journalists congress in Tunis last May, the Tunisian president received an award for his contribution to the defence of press freedom. There may have been the odd attempt to establish forums or independent leagues, to do something to counter this lamentable situation. But the power of indolence, combined with common interest networks and complicities between the regime and some journalists and media bosses, denies these organisations any possibility of truly making a difference.
Those that are financed by other countries or foreign organisations are regarded as puppets of the West. Of course governments encourage such mistrust, but despite their flaws, these organisations are the only ones reporting on the lonely battle of Arab journalists in a region where populations are being robbed of their basic rights.
Hamid Skif is an Algerian journalist and writer living in Hamburg.
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de