Press freedom in the Arab world


Perhaps the most disappointing result of the Arab Spring revolution that erupted in 2011 is how little has changed for local media outlets in the Middle East.  With the exception of the post-revolution countries of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, the local press in the Arab world still suffers from the same self-censorship, avoidance of government criticism and respect for broad “red lines” in coverage that simply aren’t crossed.

Indeed, the government response in many countries has been to revise and further restrict media and communication laws to ensure that freedom of speech is stifled for both the official media and citizen journalists trying to impart the information avoided by mainstream outlets.

International press freedom rankings show that the news media in the Middle East world still operate in a heavily restricted environment. Of the 19 countries that Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House monitors, only Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait and Tunisia earn a “partly free” ranking. The other 14 countries and the Palestinian territories sit firmly in the not-free ranking. Only Israel earns the “free” label—and it sits on the cusp because of concerns surrounding military censorship. (Reporters Without Borders measures Israel along with the Palestinian territories, resulting in a far lower press freedom ranking similar to its Arab neighbors.)

The lack of greater press freedom for Arab countries is disappointing since one of the key lessons of the Arab Spring was the public’s desire to receive impartial information. Countless analyses have shown that Arab residents turned to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (as well as international news channels) for sources of information because they do not trust the heavily censored local newspapers and broadcast stations in their own countries. These outlets are either owned outright by the government or are private businesses aligned closely with the government.

And when reporters and producers do practice impartial and critical journalism, government prosecutors are ready to issue arrest warrants to stifle this independence. One Jordanian journalist summed up the level of press freedom in his country: “As long as you don’t write about the king, the military, religion or sex you can cover anything you want.” Obviously, these prohibitions represent a sizable amount of forbidden coverage but many Arab journalists have grown to accept the limited freedoms of their profession.

Speaking broadly about the factors that lead to this environment is difficult since each country varies from its neighbors. Still, my research in the legal environment in the Arab world allows me to make a point to similar characteristics in all Arab countries. 

First, criminal defamation is a huge factor in creating an environment that dissuades good journalism. In countries with greater press freedoms, most defamation cases are handled as a civil matter. A defamed party files a libel lawsuit and can win damages if they prove that the information was untrue and injured their reputation.

In all Arab countries, defamation is a criminal matter. An aggrieved party goes to the police and files a complaint. The police arrest the journalist and the case goes to trial—sometimes the journalist remains in jail while awaiting the court appearance. In court, truth may not necessarily be a defense for libel so the aggrieved party can potentially simply prove that what the reporter said injured their reputation to win the case. Public officials are often protected with laws that make it an “aggravating factor” to defame them in their official capacity. This, too, goes against international norms where many countries have made it harder for public officials to win libel cases in order to create an environment where issues can be more freely debated.

Imagine being a journalist who’s uncovered corruption and bribery in a government department. Given the legal environment in the Arab world, it’s no wonder that journalists would simply avoid reporting the story rather than risk going to jail and a likelihood of losing their case—even if their reporting was meticulous and backed up with evidence.

Another factor limiting a robust press in the Middle East are laws that ban insults and criticism of rulers or public officials. Not all countries carry both of these laws but most Arab countries do prohibit insults of rulers—a nebulous charge that can be applied widely. A journalist airing valid allegations of corruption in the royal family could easily be accused of “insulting” the king or sheikh.

Charges for insults have been used in several countries since the Arab Spring uprisings. In Oman two journalists lost a case in which they were accused of insulting a public official after reporting on corruption in the justice ministry. A journalist in Kuwait was charged with insulting the emir of that country for his tweets that the government deemed offensive. 

Arrests for insult charges have increasingly been directed at social media activists rather than journalists. The move reflects the shifting tide of communication in the region. Years of repressive tactics against journalists have largely quelled them into complacent self-censorship. But, non-journalist activists have taken to the social media —particularly Twitter—to relay information that the local press simply ignores. In 2012, the UAE government charged five digital activists with “insulting the ruler” and other charges for engaging in a political discussion on a local forum site. They were sentenced to two to three years in prison, but the president later pardoned them.

Most countries with protections for press freedoms have done away with “insult” laws. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights just overturned a conviction in France against a man who had allegedly insulted the French president with a sign. Even that 30-euro fine was considered an abridgment of free speech.  

Another tactic used by Arab governments—particularly as they see journalism practiced on social media networks—is the charge of “spreading false news.” In countries with strong press protections, courts have recognized that laws mandating truth in reporting are simply incompatible with free expression. All journalists attempt to be accurate in their accounts, however no reporter or producer can vouch for the veracity of everything reported. The journalistic norm of attribution, for instance, makes such a demand impossible. Journalists attribute information to sources—that may or may not be truthful in their accounts. A journalist should strive for accuracy but a law against not meeting that goal can do nothing but create self-censorship and limit information for the public.

These laws against “false reports,” therefore, have one effect—they limit reporting of news. These charges have been leveled against social media activists in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring. The move is seen as a way to challenge social media activists from spreading information that the mainstream press outlets are actively avoiding. For instance, the international media and human rights observers have been barred from a sedition trial of 94 people in the United Arab Emirates. The self-censoring local press is the only source of information about the trial, leading many to get updates from social media accounts. The arrest of one social media activist sends the message that alternative forms of information dissemination will not be condoned.

Another factor limiting the Arab media are vague laws about protecting the “public order.” In perhaps the most egregious use of such a law, a Saudi journalist was convicted and sentenced to 50 lashings for reporting on electricity outages. His reporting—in which he noted people were upset about the electricity failure and were considering taking collective action—was accused of stirring up protests and violating public order. Many other countries cite maintaining “public order” as a justification for arresting journalists. International jurisdictions tend to create very specific charges rules for arresting anyone on public order grounds. For instance, in the United States a speaker must be advocating “imminent lawless action” before an arrest can be made. Such an approach creates a wide boundary to allow journalists to practice their profession without worry of arrest and harassment.

Arab governments also require that all journalists obtain a license to practice their profession. Many countries avoid licensing journalists because the power to take a license could be used to influence their reporting. Of course, many Arab governments probably appreciate having this leverage over the profession.

But, perhaps the biggest limitation to Arab journalism (and, again, forgive me for speaking in generalities) is the effect of years of repression on the profession. Many journalists simply accept that they cannot do their jobs properly and have acquiesced to the situation. Others, who have been elevated to positions of authority in Arab newsrooms, have become adept at censoring the journalists under them. In countless discussions with journalists in the Arab world, I’ve heard that editors often do the jobs of government officials by killing the stories they sense may cause trouble.

The effect is depressing. Perhaps the troubles of the Arab Spring—unemployment, government corruption, and stagnant economic growth—could have been addressed if the news media weren’t beaten down by government harassment. But, these issues were ignored by a timid Arab press and allowed to fester.

Fed up with the old media outlets, the people turned Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to give and receive impartial and unfiltered information. The result was an explosion throughout much of the Arab world. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen have all seen their long-time autocratic rulers depart. The state-aligned local media could not protect them. And those countries that haven’t yet seen a change in leadership are worried about their future and keen to stop social media from evolving into a space for free expression. Almost all of these countries have made arrests for speech on Twitter—sending an important signal the people that they expect boundaries to be respected.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Several countries are making progress establishing greater press freedom. Tunisia has retained its “partly free” ranking despite a few instances of arrests and other actions against journalists. Journalists there are building a reputation for responsible journalism amid greater freedoms. The news from Libya is also cautiously optimistic.

Unfortunately, Egypt appears to be sliding back into the “not free” category. The police questioning of television satirist Bassem Youssef over questions about insulting President Morsi and Islam are quite worrying. However, we should take heart that he never went to jail and Egyptian public opinion appears to be wary of Mubarak-era tactics coming from a democratically elected leader. We shouldn’t expect a smooth transition from oppressive censorship to complete protection of free expression overnight. Hopefully, the periodic arrests in post-revolution countries will lead to a greater awareness of the value of press freedom and help shift the opinion of prosecutors and the public on the futility of such actions.

In the countries that haven’t seen a change in leadership, none have embraced a change from the state-controlled communication model. For these countries, we may have to wait for political change before we’ll see any true gains in press freedom.