Press freedom under attack

The Arab world's new wave of media repression

Since the 2011 uprisings, authoritarian rulers in the Arab world have worked out how to manipulate and instrumentalise the media to their own ends, nipping any new democratic quake in the bud. By Lydia Khalil

Since 2018, large anti-government protests – which some term the Arab Spring 2.0 – have reverberated across the Middle East. Protesters decry corruption, sectarianism, and economic stagnation. Like the Arab uprisings a decade ago, these protests have successfully unseated key leaders – prime ministers have resigned in Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, and long-term dictators were toppled in Sudan and Algeria.

In 2011, protests died down after leaders were forced out. But this time, they have continued, highlighting the region’s crisis of governance and citizenship, which cannot adequately be addressed by rotating the head on a dysfunctional body politic.

Government forces and associated militias in Iraq and Lebanon have attempted to quash protests through violence and intimidation, but protesters have remained undeterred. As a result, the authorities in these countries have turned to the example of the region’s more authoritarian governments, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Both have managed to quell active dissent more successfully – at least for the time being – through aggressive media suppression and information manipulation, in addition to violent repression and arrests.

Sisi's war on uncomfortable truths

For these countries’ leaders, the permissive media and information environment was responsible for the protests that rocked the Arab world in 2011. In Egypt, for example, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has been waging war on any fact or analysis that runs remotely counter to his regime’s interests, and he is successfully controlling the media through comprehensive constitutional and legislative changes.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (photo: Getty Images)
Dim prospects for Egypt's independent media: President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has been waging war on any fact or analysis that runs remotely counter to his regime’s interests. Comprehensive constitutional and legislative changes have added to his success in controlling the media

The Egyptian government has facilitated arrests with sweeping media laws that criminalise the dissemination of "false news" (meaning coverage that contradicts official government statements).

There is also draft legislation under discussion that would criminalise the spread of rumours, with a cabinet-supervised body responsible for parsing what people whisper among themselves.

Last November’s raid on the offices of Mada Masr, Egypt’s last remaining major independent media outlet, is but one example of the country’s comprehensive assault on the media. Security officials arrested three journalists, claiming that Mada Masr had spread false information and had links to the Muslim Brotherhood (which the government considers a terrorist organisation).

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