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The Arab World’s Elusive Press Freedom (Part 1/2)

Following the Arab Uprisings, the Middle East continues to suffer from a lack of media freedom. This is the first of a two part series. 

Perhaps the most disappointing result of the Arab Spring revolutions that erupted in 2011 is how little has changed for local media outlets in the Middle East. With some limited exceptions among the post-revolution countries of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, the local press in the Arab world generally suffers from the same predicaments of self-censorship, avoidance of government criticism, and reverence for broad “red lines” in coverage that simply are not crossed. 

A Restricted Environment

Indeed, the government response in many countries — such as Oman, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — 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 information avoided by mainstream outlets.

International press freedom rankings show that news media in the Middle East region still operate in a heavily restricted environment. Of the 19 countries that US-based Freedom House monitors, only Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia, and Israel earn a “partly free” ranking in its 2013 report. The other 14 countries and the Palestinian territories sit firmly in the “not-free” category. Egypt slipped from “partly free” to “not free” because of the increased harassment of journalists under the administration of President Mohammad Morsi. Israel dropped from “free” to “partly free” because of concerns surrounding military censorship, corporate consolidation, and the independence of public broadcasting (a move that generated some criticism). The French organization Reporters Without Borders measures Israel along with the Palestinian territories, resulting in a far lower press freedom ranking — similar to its Arab neighbors. The lone bright spots in the rankings are Libya and Tunisia, both having retained their “partly free” rankings first obtained in the 2012 Freedom House report. 

The lack of greater press freedom for most Arab countries is disappointing since one of the key lessons of the Arab Spring was the public’s desire to receive unfiltered, impartial information. During the 2011 revolutions, many Arab residents turned to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter (as well as international news channels) for sources of information as the heavily censored local newspapers and broadcast stations ignored events in their own countries (this seems to have changed with Tunisia and Egypt, where the ability to censor heavily seems to have diminished dramatically). These outlets are either owned outright by the government or are private businesses aligned closely with the government.

Perhaps it is best to argue that despite the overarching patterns which are common across the region, conditions vary dramatically between countries depending on local nuances.

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 led to this environment is difficult, since each country varies from its neighbors. Still, my research into the legal environment in the Arab world allows me to point to similar characteristics in all Arab countries. 

Defamation: A Criminal Affair

First, criminal defamation is a prominent factor in creating an environment that dissuades good journalism. In countries with greater press freedoms, most defamation cases are handled as civil matters. A defamed party files a civil libel lawsuit and can win damages if they prove that the information 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. Unlike in countries with strong protections for free speech, truth may not necessarily be a defense for libel. So, an aggrieved party can potentially win a case by simply proving that what the reporter said injured their reputation. Public officials are often protected with laws that make it an “aggravating factor” to defame them in their official capacity. This, too, disagrees with international norms where many countries have made it harder for public officials to win libel cases in order to create an environment where issues of public concern can be more freely debated. 

Imagine being a journalist who has uncovered corruption and bribery in a government department. Given the legal environment in the Arab world, it is 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. 

Earlier this year, Morocco's prosecutors charged a newspaper editor with criminal defamation after he published an exposé about a public official ordering champagne while on a taxpayer-funded trip abroad. His report was verified with receipts. And even in post-revolution Tunisia, a university professor and blogger was charged earlier this year with criminal defamation of public officials. The blogger had documented unethical spending by the former foreign minister. Ironically, the professor had criticized an elected lawmaker for making changes to the Constitution that squelched freedom of expression. In Kuwait, an online publisher was sent to prison for defaming the former oil minister after he “expressed an opinion that there was a need to combat corruption.”

Other examples of criminal defamation charges are aplenty throughout the Arab world. They are most often used to protect public officials and other powerful figures from charges of corruption. 

An illuminating front-page editorial in the Qatar Peninsula described how the criminal defamation charges hamper good reporting in that Gulf country. The 2011 article, headlined “The Crippled Fourth Estate,” details how a complaint from anyone can lead to a visit from a policeman, a call from a prosecutor in the middle of the night, and other anxiety-riddled harassment. Given that environment, the newspaper asks, who would practice good critical journalism? It blames the situation on the lack of a robust media law in Qatar. But, it is important to note that the criminal defamation charges in many Arab countries are found in their penal codes, not the media laws. 

Insult Charges a Popular Tool 

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. In Kuwait, dozens of citizens — including opposition politicians — have been jailed for “insulting the emir” via posts on Twitter.  

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 2011, the UAE government convicted 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. In post-revolution Egypt, activist Ahmed Douma and dozens of others were arrested earlier this year on charges of “insulting” President Morsi. Observers say their speech is nothing more the criticism and dissent. Douma himself was sentenced to jail for six months for his comments about Egyptian President Morsi. Of course, police have also recently questioned Bassem Yousef — who hosts a popular satire television show in Egypt — on charges that include insulting the president.  

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

Fabricating Falsity 

Another tactic used by Arab governments — particularly as they see journalism practiced on social media networks instead of traditional outlets — 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 — which may or may not be truthful in their accounts. A journalist should strive for accuracy but a law prohibiting all false reporting can do nothing but create self-censorship and limit public access to information.

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 EmiratesBahrainKuwait, and Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring began. 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. In May, a social media activist was sent to prison for ten months for his tweets that conveyed information about the trial and criticized some of the proceedings. The UAE also updated its cybercrime law in 2012 to include language that makes digital transmission of false information a crime. Article 38 of the law prohibits spreading “any incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading information which may damage the interests of the state or injures its reputation, prestige, or stature.” This law gives the security forces great leeway in charging citizens with a crime over their social media speech. 

In Egypt, the editor of the daily newspaper Al Watan was charged with spreading “false news that could disturb public peace,” after a report about the plans of militant Islamist terrorist cells. That case is still pending and shows that “false news” is still a viable charge against the old media. 

Many international courts and legislatures have recognized the need to protect false news in order to guarantee freely functioning press systems. In 2004, the Ugandan Supreme Court struck down a false news conviction. It noted:

"A person’s expression or statement is not precluded from the constitutional protection simply because it is thought by another or others to be false, erroneous, controversial or unpleasant… Indeed, the protection is most relevant and required where a person’s views are opposed or objected to by society or any part thereof, as 'false' or 'wrong.'"

*[Note: Read the final part on June 30. This article was originally published by Jadaliyya. An earlier Italian language version was first featured in the Arab Media Report.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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