There's an old saying that "the truth will set you free." But for journalists in the Middle East and North Africa, telling the truth can come at a high cost. In the pursuit of reporting on critical issues and defending democratic values, journalists in the region face unprecedented obstacles, including physical violence, imprisonment, and censorship. Despite the risks, they continue to work tirelessly to uncover the truth. In this report, we explore the major challenges facing male and female journalists in the region, and emphasize the need for collective action to safeguard the freedom of the press and support the vital work of journalists in defending human rights and democratic values.
A vibrant and unfettered press is the bedrock of free and democratic societies. It is the vital bridge that links the populace with crucial information, the very lifeblood of public involvement, and arms them with the facts they need to make informed choices, to keep their leaders in check, and to access a full spectrum of perspectives that are unencumbered by the sway of those in power. It also empowers individuals to safeguard their rights and demand accountability and dignity.
World Press Freedom Day is a momentous occasion to pay tribute to the unwavering dedication of numerous journalists, who selflessly labor every day to deliver the truth from every nook and cranny of our planet, regardless of the perils they may face. It is also a poignant moment to contemplate the uphill battle that independent journalists in the Middle East and North Africa must confront, as they navigate a web of challenges in their pursuit of safeguarding the fundamental rights of approximately 547 million souls (2020 World Bank statistics).
The ability to freely express oneself and access reliable information are bedrock tenets for prosperous societies and nations, spanning across the political, economic, and social realms. These two critical ideals hold a central position in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which a vast majority of countries worldwide, including those in the region, have pledged to uphold. It guarantees every person the right to seek, obtain, and disseminate information and ideas through any means, without being confined by geographical or political borders.
In the Middle East and North Africa, a seismic wave of discontent has swept across the region, as people have taken to the streets to demand their fundamental rights and an end to the scourge of corruption and lawlessness. Amidst this tumultuous backdrop, journalists have emerged as the unsung heroes, fearlessly covering the protests and exposing the truth. However, instead of being celebrated, they have become the targets of brutal retribution at the hands of security services and de facto authorities.
The horrifying tactics they face include physical assaults, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and show trials. In response, regional governments have tightened their grip on the media, ramping up surveillance, imposing new restrictions, and subjecting journalists to unspeakable mistreatment and detention - all for simply carrying out their sacred duty of informing the public. The result is a suffocating work environment that grows more perilous with each passing day.
Media professionals in the Middle East and North Africa have long borne the brunt of the risks associated with their profession, as they courageously report on issues of public interest. Shockingly, in the previous year (2022), "Women Journalists Without Chains" documented a staggering 1,140 violations against journalists across 18 countries in the region, with 219 of these violations targeting women journalists. These abuses were perpetrated by government security agencies and included 12 murders in Syria, 3 in the occupied Palestine, 2 in Yemen, and 1 in Turkey. The press has been further stifled by the proliferation of prisons, where journalists are routinely incarcerated and subjected to a plethora of notorious laws and judicial persecution, severely curtailing their ability to carry out their vital work.
Journalists operating in the Middle East and North Africa are grappling with a host of pressing challenges that are increasingly undermining their ability to carry out their work. Among these challenges are the rampant impunity that allows those who attack journalists to evade justice, a surge in the number of journalists being detained, and a shrinking space for free expression. The use of spyware and other tools to harass journalists, coupled with a rising tide of online violence, have further compounded the dangers faced by journalists in the region. Tragically, female journalists are often the targets of these assaults, severely curtailing their capacity to report and limiting their ability to operate effectively.
In this context, we explore five major challenges that male and female journalists faced during this tumultuous year.
1. Impunity and Violence Against Journalists: The year 2022 was a harrowing one for journalists in the Middle East and North Africa. Perpetrators of violence against journalists continued to evade justice with alarming frequency, as demonstrated by the tragic death of journalist Sherine Abu Aqleh, who was shot dead by Israeli forces while covering the situation on the ground. Female journalists in Iran were among those who suffered the most, with many being detained for covering protests and a brutal killing by the morality police. In total, over 72 journalists were detained for exposing the unrest that erupted in September.
2. Risk of Prosecution and Imprisonment: Journalists in the Middle East and North Africa faced a growing risk of prosecution and imprisonment in 2022 for simply shedding light on certain cases or issues. In countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the UAE, and Bahrain, journalists were targeted, imprisoned, or fired for calling attention to issues, regardless of the accuracy of their reporting. For instance, dozens of employees of a semi-governmental newspaper in the UAE were fired for reporting on the high cost of oil derivatives, while in Lebanon, a journalist was prosecuted for reporting on the issue of child smuggling to Syria.
3. Decline of Freedom of Expression and Opinion: The year 2022 marked a troubling setback for the freedom of expression and opinion in the Middle East and North Africa, which had already been under attack since the Arab Spring. The decline was driven by the unchecked power of political, financial, and economic forces, coupled with tyrannical regimes' fear of information and public reaction. Totalitarian political systems in the Arab Gulf, Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen resorted to draconian measures like censorship, surveillance, and imprisonment of journalists, and even physical and moral harm.
4. Threats to Freedom of the Press in Tunisia: Tunisia, once a symbol of hope in the Arab Spring, is now facing a new threat to its hard-won freedoms. President Kais Saied is consolidating his power in a totalitarian manner and curbing freedom of expression, press, and media. Throughout 2022, journalists in Tunisia reported arrests, harassment, and intimidation. President Saied issued a decree that directly restricts the work of journalists, making it difficult for them to do their jobs. Military courts have also been used to convict journalists, with many facing imprisonment. Security forces in Tunisia have been using violence against journalists and frequently barring them from covering trials.
5. Government Control over Media and Journalism: In many countries, the government's control over the media and journalism is a formidable force. Unfair laws and restrictions on broadcasting and publishing licenses are often used to prevent independent media ownership, ensuring that the state retains control over the news narrative. Meanwhile, the carrot-and-stick approach is frequently employed, with loyal journalists who praise and defend the government's policies being rewarded with favors, while those who report facts and work independently are met with repression, often through legal means. In certain countries, the ruling regime is going to great lengths to preserve their grip on power, including purchasing independent press organizations, cracking down on dissenting owners, and using loyalists to silence independent journalists.
In conclusion, the crucial role that journalists play in defending human rights and democratic values cannot be overstated. Their work is founded on principles of integrity, professionalism, and ethics, and serves as a vital check on abuses of power. However, the challenges facing journalists in the Middle East and North Africa require a collective effort from the international community, civil society organizations, and human rights institutions. It is imperative that we all work together to safeguard the freedom of the press and support the vital work of journalists in defending our shared values and the well-being of our communities. By doing so, we can help build a more just and equitable society for all, free from conflict, corruption, and the suppression of freedom of expression.