As Middle Eastern Regimes Regain Power, the Freedom of the Press Is a Major Casualty

Since Saudi journalist Khashoggi’s murder, journalists fear 'such a murder could take place in any country'

The Doha Center for Media Freedom announces the cessation of its activities
DCMF website

19 years ago a Kuwaiti police officer, Khaled Neqa al-Azmi, murdered journalist and editor Hidaya al-Sultan. The six shots, which cut short the life of a woman who was the owner of the political magazine Al Majales and the first female editor-in-chief in Kuwait, sent the officer to prison for many years. But last week his family announced with great pride that it had managed to collect $33 million, the ransom money demanded by the heirs of al-Sultan, to waive the continuation of the prison sentence.

Thousands of Kuwaitis joined the donation campaign, the social networks were abuzz and the servers fell due to the enthusiastic responses by the donors who supported the officer’s release. There is probably no incident more suitable for representing World Press Freedom Day, which fell on May 3, than the success of the campaign to release the murderer of a journalist.

A few days later the Qatari government announced the closing of the Doha Center for Media Freedom, which has operated in the capital since 2008. Without any explanation, all the employees of the center were dismissed, and they are now finding it difficult to receive their rights.

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All that remained on the center’s home page was a letter of thanks in three languages to everyone who has contributed to the activity of the center, which was established to promote “freedom of expression and the press in Qatar, the Middle East and the entire world,” as indicated by the words of praise showered on it by the country’s leaders when it was established.

The differences of opinion that developed between the heads of the center, including famous foreign journalists and the rulers of the kingdom erupted already in the center’s early days, mainly over the criticism published about the Qatari press and the restrictions on freedom of expression in the kingdom.

These disputes reached a height after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed heavy economic sanctions on Qatar, a step that caused the government to mobilize all the media outlets for the battle against them.

In this context, the Qatari leadership also demanded of the Center for Media Freedom to stand alongside it and adopt the media policy of the Al Jazeera network, which contradicted the center’s policy of maintaining its independence and freedom of activity.

Closing the center, the only one of its kind in an Arab country, made it clear that even the leader of the media revolution in the Middle East, the country that shattered the restrictions of censorship in the Arab world and did not hesitate to confront Arab regimes, was not exactly a typical freedom fighter, and that its interpretation of media freedom was based on a local political point of view.

And yet, Qatari journalists can be pleased that their country is in 128th place in the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are in far lower spots, and the only good news came from Tunisia, which jumped 25 places to No. 72. The Qataris can also take consolation that their lives are not in danger like those of journalists in Turkey, 68 of whom are under arrest; in Egypt, where 25 are under arrest, and in Saudi Arabia, where 16 journalists are in prison.

These restrictions are not imposed only on journalists and media outlets, but on social-network surfers, who are not defined as journalists but whose ability to disseminate information has turned them into the most influential media agents in the region. The website Arab Barometer, which has been conducting public opinion polls in Arab countries since 2006, recently published a survey about the state of freedom of expression and the press in Arab countries, presenting interesting data about the way citizens perceive freedom of expression.

The survey covers three periods, from 2010 to 2017, and it shows that shortly after the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010, a sense of freedom of expression blossomed among the citizens. In countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, between 85 percent and 93 percent of those polled said that they enjoyed freedom of expression.

The report indicates that during this period, when several Arab regimes fell due to pressure from the protests, a fear of public opinion caused the new regimes to halt oppressive steps and allow the media to operate with a degree of freedom that was not customary before the revolutions.

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But as the years passed, the sense of freedom of expression among citizens and journalists also plummeted, and stood in direct relation to the power that the new regimes gathered unto themselves. For example, the sense of freedom of expression plummeted in Egypt from 93 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2013 and 56 percent in 2016.

“Our freedom of expression deteriorated to a lower level than in the period of [former President] Hosni Mubarak,” a journalist who works for a government newspaper told Haaretz this week. “We have to be far more cautious today when we write about government institutions. The hints and the threats against anyone who dares to deviate from the policy dictated by the authorities are becoming more blatant and direct. We thought that during the period of President Mohammed Morsi we had reached the lowest level, but apparently we were only halfway down the stairway compared to what’s happening now.”

When asked about the influence of the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on the status of journalists, he expressed surprise that the Western world even took an interest in that murder. “What about all the Arab journalists who were murdered, ‘disappeared,’ or imprisoned over the years? Where was everyone then? Since Khashoggi’s murder we all feel that such a murder could take place in any country. Paradoxically, Khashoggi’s murder doesn’t protect us. It has become the hidden threat from the government authorities.”