Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America, Press Freedom

RIGHTS: Mideast and North Africa Cited for Press Abuses

Mohammed A. Salih and Charles Fromm

WASHINGTON, Feb 16 2010 (IPS) - A report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on press freedom around the world in 2009 depicts an especially gloomy situation in the Middle East and North Africa, where authorities continue to use repressive measures to muzzle journalists.

Highlighting the greatly deteriorating press conditions in Iran, CPJ’s report, released Tuesday, accuses the country’s authorities of one of the “most vicious and widespread crackdowns on the press in recent memory” following last June’s disputed presidential elections, which saw incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected.

More than 90 journalists and media workers were detained by Iranian security forces, including several foreigners, according to CPJ. In one case, the authorities rounded up most of the staff of Kamaeh Sabz, a newspaper close to the main opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Many of the detained journalists have reportedly been tortured.

The government restricted access to the internet and mobile phone services and highly limited foreign journalists’ ability to cover the protests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei branded foreign media as “evil” and accused them of trying to create discord in the country.

“Restricting the foreign press appeared to serve the dual purpose of limiting coverage of internal upheaval and the graphic abuse of protesters, while pinning the unrest on Western interference in Iran’s internal affairs,” the report said.

Next door in Iraq, improving security conditions meant a relatively safer environment for journalists, although harassment and attacks continued.

While four journalists were killed in the country during 2009, for the first time in six years, Iraq was not the deadliest nation for journalists, as the Philippines was scene of the worst massacre of journalists last year.

The CPJ report criticised Iraqi authorities for failing to “address impunity in journalist murders”, noting that by the end of last year, not one person had been convicted out of 89 cases of journalists killed explicitly because of their work since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003. A total of 140 journalists were killed in that six-year period.

Despite last year’s low death toll and no reported abductions of journalists, Iraqi authorities launched a campaign of harassment, assault and legal action against the press, CPJ said.

“Officials don’t want journalists to write about things such as security issues, violations of human rights, lack of basic services and corruption,” Ziad al-Ajili, director of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory in Iraq, told CPJ. “They are imposing restrictions on journalists – and the direction they are taking is more toward authoritarianism.”

In Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, a court in Sulaimaniya ordered Hawlati, one of the most popular Kurdish newspapers, to pay a hefty fine of 10 million Iraqi dinars, nearly 9,000 U.S. dollars, based on a lawsuit by Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani.

Hawlati’s editor, Abid Aref, was also personally fined three million Iraqi dinars, almost 2,500 U.S. dollars. Hawlati had translated a critical article by U.S. scholar Michael Rubin in 2008 that accused Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, of corruption and undemocratic governance.

With the Middle East and North Africa witnessing the fastest growth of internet penetration in the world, online journalism and blogging have played a highly significant role in drawing attention to governments’ human rights abuses.

In Egypt, Wael Abbas, a well-known human rights activist and blogger, made a name for himself by posting videos of police brutality and civil unrest in the wake of Egypt’s presidential referendum in 2005.

Since then, he has paid the price for his commitment to advocacy. He has been prevented from leaving the country and is often subjected to harassment, detention and arrest by state security officials and the police, the report says.

Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco have sometimes suspended the broadcast of satellite news channels, particularly Al-Jazeera, for highlighting sensitive human rights, political, or religious issues, the report notes.

“In Tunisia, people learned about human rights violations mainly from satellite TV stations and particularly Al-Jazeera, which was seen by many Tunisians as a breath of oxygen,” said local journalist Naziha Réjiba. Réjiba received CPJ’s 2009 International Press Freedom Award.

Morocco is home to an infamous press code, which can levy decades-long prison sentences for libel against the king. The law was revised in 2002, but many changes were seen as cosmetic. Article 41 of the code extends the law’s applicability to Islam and Morocco’s territorial integrity as well.

Morocco’s courts, in addition to executive power, were also given the authority to suspend or close newspapers.

“We counted many cases of physical abuse against journalists in many areas, the most recent occurring in Casablanca,” the head of the Journalists’ Syndicate, Yunis Moujahid, told Menasat, an online clearinghouse for journalism in the Middle East.

He added that it is imperative to adopt regulations that guarantee better conditions for journalists to practice their profession in respect of national and international law.

However, CPJ’s report asserts that Morocco has seen an increase in human rights reporting, since a truth commission began examining abuses committed during the 1961-1999 reign of King Hassan II.

Although the hearings of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission ended in 2005, the independent press has continued to report on abuses – and not just under Hassan, but also under his successor, Mohammed VI.

Still, authorities censor, jail and harass journalists to silence coverage of the royal family, contends the report.

In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories, Israel’s decision to bar international press access to the Gaza Strip during its three-week military campaign in the coastal territory last year was highlighted in the report.

This policy is described as part of “a massive public relations battle over coverage in the international press.”

It also mentions the Israeli army’s targeting of news media buildings in Gaza for air strikes, and the taking over of local television and radio frequencies to distribute Israeli military propaganda.

Meanwhile, rival Palestinian ruling factions of Fatah and Hamas detained and harassed members of the media they perceived as biased.

The CPJ report highlights deteriorating conditions for the press in many other countries around the world as well. In the Philippines, 31 journalists and media workers were killed during an ambush by unknown assailants, ranking it “worst among peacetime democracies, trailing only war-ridden places such as Iraq and Somalia.”

The report also criticises Russia for doing little to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of 19 journalists during the past 10 years, with a murder conviction won only in one case. As three journalists died alone last year in Russia, CPJ says the “brutal reality” for the country’s press has not changed.

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