Edition 17 Volume 5 - May 03, 2024

Press freedom in the Middle East

Israel: free but selective -   Amira Hass

The media enjoys complete freedom but the Israeli public receives at most one-thousandth of the available information on Israel's policies in the occupied territories.

Under more than one kind of fire -   Daoud Kuttab

Journalists and editors often refrain from publishing the truth because they are unsure whether they can get another job once they are fired for not toeing the line.

The Arab media paradox -   Marc Lynch

Very few Arab citizens believe the media is independent or that journalists can do their work without fear of punishment.

Cyber activists shape up for the fight -   Esra'a Al Shafei

The internet is the perfect tool for Arabs across the region to network with each other and to help each other when needed.

Israel: free but selective
 Amira Hass

Long before the Winograd report was released to the public, the Israeli media had cast doubt on the qualifications of those who managed the second Lebanon war last summer (though not on the actual act of war). In the interim, Israeli newspapers discussed economic scandals in which senior officials were suspected of involvement and which in turn stole the limelight from accusations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels. Now and then the Israel Police are monitored for negligence, and the IDF for phenomena like neglecting its combat troops.

No doubt about it, the media in Israel enjoys complete freedom to pursue its most important task: monitoring centers of power in the country. The lives and livelihood of journalists and editors are in no way jeopardized by political power centers. No official mechanism of political censorship constrains them; there is no "information ministry" dictating the headlines.

During a morning talk show on Israel Army Radio in late April the civilian moderator talked at length about the latest suspicions of inappropriate conduct by Ehud Olmert when he was minister of commerce and industry. The host presented the issues from several angles and interviewed legal experts and politicians with opposing views. It was perfectly clear that he was neither frightened nor inhibited by threats of vengeance.

The talk show host's second "item" of the morning was the Gaza Strip. Here he interviewed a former IDF general who advocated that Israel again attack Gaza in order to stop the firing of Qassam rockets. The civilian host--who is known for the critical social content of his journalistic work--did not produce, if only for the sake of "professional balance", an opposing view, one that argued that previous offensives had been useless and that the solution to the Qassam rockets could only be political. The ex-military interviewee had actually been involved in friction with the IDF establishment, but that did not prevent his appearance. The lesson? Not a single hair would have fallen from the head of the host had he presented a contrary opinion.

The professional lacuna we encounter here reflects a consistent feature of Israeli journalism: regarding Israel's war against the Palestinians, aggressive army and security service versions and official government versions are generally treated as the gospel truth. These are the versions that are positioned as the opening items of electronic media news and on the front page of the print press--i.e., at the top of the editorial hierarchy. They are consequently burned into the consciousness of media consumers as "the plain facts".

The facts that contradict the official discourse on the Palestinian issue, when they are published (in one paper more than the rest of the media), are positioned lower in the hierarchy: in the features sections, where they are perceived more as "stories" than "facts", and on the editorial pages, where they can be portrayed as "views" and comment rather than "truth". Even on these pages they are usually absent, despite the fact that the occupation apparatus generates non-stop news items never reported by the IDF Spokesman's office. The Israeli public receives at most one-thousandth of the available information on Israel's policies in the occupied territories.

Thus does the media fail at its task of posing questions that emerge from those facts that do not correspond with the official discourse. This process of editorial selection reached new heights during the July 2024 Camp David talks and upon the outbreak of the second intifada. The official Israeli versions of events were highlighted like the Ten Commandments, despite easy access to contradictory information.

One cannot dismiss this selective and unprofessional editorial policy as reflecting the whims or beliefs of this or that editor. Indeed, the primary explanation for this phenomenon is sociological: Jewish-Israeli society, of which the media is part and parcel, is a "power center" vis-a-vis occupied Palestinian society. Occupation awards Jews with privileges at the expense of Palestinians. Control over water resources facilitates grossly unequal distribution of water between Palestinians and Israelis; control over land permits the development of an improved and distinct infrastructure for Jews that serves not only settlers; the settlements, including those on lands annexed to Jerusalem, offer Israelis a socio-economic upgrade and industrial parks with a potential for cheap labor. The dominant security discourse enables the continuous expansion and enhancement of high-tech jobs in the fields of security and surveillance that enjoy global demand.

Many Israelis have relatives in the settlements and in professional sectors linked to the settlements. They all consider the settlements and their security--meaning the suppression of Palestinians and the establishment of a draconian separation regime--as a natural, necessary and justified phenomenon. Israelis identify intimately with their sons and daughters who are sent to defend the occupation and do not tolerate what is understood as criticism of "their children". Here the Israeli media, with a few exceptions, acts not as a monitor and critic but as the representative of a power center and its vested interest in perpetuating its superiority.- Published 3/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Amira Hass is the Haaretz reporter in the occupied Palestinian territories. She lives in Ramallah.

Under more than one kind of fire
 Daoud Kuttab

Arab journalists, more than any other journalists around the world, need security. They need physical security and economic security as well as the security of strong laws and regulations.

Being an independent journalist in the Arab world is not a very safe profession. If you are working in the two most media-productive areas in the Arab world (Iraq and Palestine) you are constantly in very direct danger. If you are a photographer or TV cameraperson the level of danger is much higher. The problem lately is that you can't predict where the danger comes from. While traditional armies can be dangerous to independent journalists, internal struggles and unrestrained local groups and militias are rapidly becoming the main concern for the safety of journalists. But even if one's life is not in direct danger, the most basic need of a journalist--to travel and move from one location to another--can be hampered by checkpoints and administrative roadblocks as well as unpredictable snipers and settlers.

For those in areas where there is no violent conflict another fear is prevalent, that of losing your job. With so much partisan media in the Arab world these days, the economic factor becomes one of the greatest obstacles to independent media. Ensuring job security is probably the greatest cause of self-censorship. Journalists and editors often refrain from publishing the truth or different points of view of the truth simply because they are unsure whether they can get another job once they are fired for not toeing the line. In some cases the worry is not simply about being fired by your employer, but losing your job as a result of imprisonment by local authorities.

Tens of media regulations across the region include clauses for imprisonment or high financial penalties for violating vague laws like hurting your country's image abroad, "disturbing" national unity or "undermining trust" in local currencies. Even some of the more reform-minded Arab countries still refuse to legislate against arresting journalists for expressing an opinion or to pass laws guaranteeing access to information. Most Arab countries continue to monopolize control over radio and television either directly or in the hands of cronies close to the rulers.

Yet despite these restrictions, the Arab media scene is changing thanks mainly to new media that has bypassed legal roadblocks through the use of satellite, internet and even handheld cell phones. The majority of Arabs today are young people who rarely pay attention to the media of the establishment. Unless that media changes and changes fast, this new generation will get almost all its information from alternative and unorthodox media sources, for better or for worse.- Published 3/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

The Arab media paradox
 Marc Lynch

Today's Arab media is rife with paradox. Compared to only a decade ago, today's Arab world enjoys a dizzying variety of television stations, newspapers and internet sites. The news and political discourse in these media outlets have decisively shattered the ability of states to monopolize information or control public opinion. But while technological trends have fueled the growing power and freedom of the Arab media, Arab states seem determined to fight it every step of the way. Tightening media laws, unsubtle harassment of journalists and independent media outlets and outright violence continue to cast a black cloud over Arab media freedoms.

Before giving in to despair at the bleak realities of the region's media, it is worth remembering how far the Arab media has come in only a decade. Before al-Jazeera, which launched in 1996, virtually all of the electronic Arab media and most newspapers suffered from tight state control. While some London-based newspapers enjoyed more freedom, they had relatively limited audiences. The media landscape today could hardly be more different. A wide range of satellite television stations compete for regional market share, including not only al-Jazeera but also the Saudi-backed al-Arabiya, a variety of Gulf, Lebanese and Egyptian channels and a growing number of western-backed stations. High quality independent newspapers such as Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm and al-Dustour and Jordan's al-Ghad have established themselves as major political forces. Blogs and internet sites allow for an ever wider zone of public discussion and debate.

But such optimistic trends are tempered by the harsh political realities of the region. For all their path-breaking contributions to political discourse, satellite television stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya remain to varying degrees subordinate to the political interests of their state sponsors. Independent newspapers operate at the sufferance of regimes that too often move harshly against those that violate the red lines. For instance, Morocco has seen a troubling series of lawsuits against the independent press and journalists such as Aboubakr Jamai, TelQuel and Le Journal Hebdomadaire. Syria's first private satellite TV station, al-Sham, was closed down the day it was scheduled to air its first news broadcast. The Jordanian Parliament this year passed a harshly punitive press and publications law. The Egyptian regime, despite its tolerance of a contentious political press, has been escalating its repressive campaign against political bloggers and independent journalists. The Saudi media remains tightly controlled, even if its margins of freedom sometimes widen. Across the region, journalists have little access to information and little protection from vengeful regimes.

What is more, Arab journalists face great risks to life and limb (especially in Iraq). Atwar Bahjat, a courageous young female reporter for first al-Jazeera and then al-Arabiya, has become a symbol of the plight of Arab journalists since her brutal murder in Iraq last year. Samir Qassir and Gibran Tueni are only two of the Lebanese journalists murdered for their political writings. Dhayf al-Ghazzal, a Libyan journalist investigating corruption, was found dead in the desert. The independent Yemeni journalist Jamal Amer and his colleagues have faced serious threats and attacks. Al-Arabiya offices have been bombed in Iraq and in the Palestinian areas, while al-Jazeera journalists have frequently been harassed, arrested and deported. Many other journalists across the region have faced beatings, threats, harassment and official intimidation--which have led many to practice self-censorship.

These continuing pressures do not escape the notice of the public. A recent public opinion survey of four relatively "moderate" Arab countries by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems found that very few citizens believe the media is independent or effective, or that journalists can do their work without fear of punishment. Some 58 percent of Jordanians, 48 percent of Egyptians and 45 percent of Moroccans felt that journalists did not "enjoy freedom of expression without fear of reprisal", and comparable numbers felt that "the media is not able to report openly on all types of issues".

A more subtle threat to media freedoms is posed by regimes that use the media for "mobilizational" purposes. Whether it is the Saudi media waging a campaign against "deviant ideas" or the Egyptian media campaigning for Hosni Mubarak, the media remains a tool of state power rather than a foundation for an autonomous public sphere. Recent sharp debates about the proper role for America's al-Hurra bring this problem into sharp focus: should an American-financed station hew to the party line and promote American foreign policy, or should it provide an open venue for contentious political discourse and set an example of democratic freedoms?

Despite these grim realities, the trends favor media freedoms. Satellite television stations competing for market share and growing access to the internet both challenge state controls. But technology is not enough. Arab media freedoms depend on sustained political pressure, both from within and from the outside. Only a free, contentious media can build the foundations for pluralism, giving citizens access to information and the outlet to argue publicly about the core issues of political life. Western policymakers should offer a principled and consistent defense of media freedoms and independent media and accept no excuses from the Arab regimes that would prefer to crush them.- Published 3/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science at Williams College, is the author of Voices of the New Arab Public (Columbia University Press) and of the influential Middle East politics blog, www.abuaardvark.com.

Cyber activists shape up for the fight
 Esra'a Al Shafei

More and more young Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa are turning to cyber activism to fight for human rights and intellectual freedom in the region. The web, the internet, cyber space, whatever you want to call it, is a hugely powerful tool for the powerless and voiceless in our societies. Thus, while at first blogging was our internet gateway to freedom of expression, more and more, as we realized that a significant number of people started to rely on blogs for their news and political interaction, we understood that further steps could be taken to make the most out of this medium.

Why the internet? The most important reason is interaction. It is the perfect tool for Arabs across the region to network with each other and to help each other when needed. Before blogging, many of us had no connection to diverse minorities within Arab countries, such as the Kurdish and Jewish communities. Arabs in the Gulf region hardly had any contact with fellow Arabs in North Africa.

We are quickly learning how to break these limits and boundaries through new and interactive technologies. Many of us choose to do this through cyber activism, which has proven to have significant social impacts. Through campaigns such as Free Kareem--aimed to free the 22 year old Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer--and pan-Arab networks such as Inter-Iman (inter-iman.com)--the Arabic version of the Middle East Interfaith Network--and Dis Moi (dis-moi.org)--a French website promoting tolerance and constructive dialogue amongst a diverse group of young Arabs--blogging is being taken to a new level. This new generation of group blogs and cyber campaigns is powerful enough to change public discourse in our societies, because many of these young writers are beginning to discuss taboos, something we were never given a chance to do in public, and are learning how to increase awareness through successful public relations and creative means of communication.

Cyber campaigns are also bringing attention to issues that are rarely discussed in our mainstream media outlets, such as forced prostitution or migrant rights. Moreover, cyber activists are trying to break stereotypes by making important statements through their campaigns. Tired of the false claim that Muslims are intolerant and unable to accept criticism, a group of young activists, including myself, led the Free Kareem campaign to underscore that although Kareem criticized our faith, we will fight for his right to express such opinions. We believe that this approach will have a positive impact on Muslims in the region. Furthering this argument, more websites were created in order to fight for the rights of religious minorities within our societies, including Arab Jews, Kurdish Christians, and others.

The internet is not an end in itself. Realizing this, many young Arabs across the region are thinking of ways for us to apply our thoughts and ideas by trying to establish local connections and bigger organizations. For example, the Middle East Interfaith Blogger Network, as stated in its manifesto, was established mainly to promote grassroots interfaith activism within our local communities. In this spirit we are attending relevant regional events and doing our best to publicly celebrate our diversity rather than fight for political or religious dominance.

For those of us fighting for human rights and freedom, the internet is strengthening our communication strategies and enabling us to pursue our hopes and dreams. While our work is not entirely beyond the reach of the censors, it is still powerful enough to inspire and contribute to positive change in the region. We can now make contacts, discuss things on a cross-cultural basis and rally for justice as a group of young men and women who previously had little to no connection. We are thus now more influential and have the tools required for us to pressure human rights violators to correct their grave errors, such as Egypt's mistake of imprisoning Kareem merely because of what he said. Thanks to these tools, tools that more people are gaining access to in our region, we have no reason to give up.- Published 3/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Esra'a Al Shafei is based in Bahrain and is a recent recipient of the Berkman Award from Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society for her "outstanding contributions to the internet and its impact on society".

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