Arab Media: Revolving Doors of Censorship

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A Tunisian man holds a placard during a demonstration demanding freedom of press on 9 January 2012. Placard reads "Freedom of press is a gain for the revolution of our people, we won't bow down to the ruling party." (Photo: Ali Garboussi)

By: Layal Haddad

Published Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The year that saw the end of silence saw a rise in taboos. Regardless of what may lie next, the media landscape in the Arab world has definitely changed.

Last year began with the downfall of Arab dictatorships that had been in power for decades. However, towards the end of the year, international reports started to shed light on another side of the revolutions, the part that deals with personal and media freedoms.

In its annual report, Amnesty International noted that citizens were still suffering from oppression in several countries that witnessed revolutions.

Reporters Without Borders shed the light on the state of media in Arab countries and how the margin of freedom in countries that experienced a revolution broadened, but it underlined “the high price journalists paid while doing their jobs, especially photographers.”

The report covered Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen and included an inventory of violations journalists faced this year.

The report also included a comparative study of the figures of those killed, arrested and prosecuted journalists before and after the revolution. The change of regimes in some countries, and governments’ attempts to circumvent the revolution with reforms in others have naturally caused a drop in the prosecution of journalists.

However, the newly gained freedom in the region was met with the rise in a new type of repression in the form of new social taboos. These once again tightened the leash on media according to the sources above.

In Tunisia, a religious and moral censorship on newspapers and television stations emerged, as exemplified by the harassment of Nabil Karoui, the general manager of Nessma TV channel.

Karoui received death threats and his house was burned down by an angry mob of Islamists after his station aired the animated movie Persepolis.

In May, a Tunisian court ordered the blocking of number of pornographic sites. That came only months after Tunisia had gotten rid of the suffocating political and security censorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

However, this phenomenon seems all too natural, as “most of Ben Ali’s supporters became the advocates of reform and democracy after the toppling of the regime,” according to the Reporters Without Borders report.

The scene in Egypt is similar to the one in Tunisia. Hosni Mubarak was ousted, however, the remnants of his regime and his military council took the reins of power and are running the country “with the same style of censorship that Mubarak used to enforce,” according to the same report.

The report actually goes further by pointing out that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) “did not conform with the same methods of the former regime, as they became harsher and even more severe,” referring to the court martial of many bloggers who criticized SCAF.

With the outbreak of the revolution in Libya, state media was under complete control of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. News of the demonstrations reached the world by means of social networking sites. Then NATO intervened, bombing cities and pro-Gaddafi media outlets.

After the former Libyan leader was killed and the Transitional National Council started took over, Libya witnessed a media boom. Even though the fate of media is still not clear in Libya, more than 130 newspapers and magazines, and dozens of TV and radio channels have popped up across the country.

Here also rights organizations fear a politico-religious censorship of Lybian media, especially during the coverage of the upcoming elections this year.

The situation in Bahrain and Syria differs from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where regimes have fallen.

In Bahrain, the regime suppressed protesters in a violent manner, while benefiting from a complete media blackout.

As for Syria, it seems that the path of the revolution there is long, winding, and strenuous.

Reporters Without Borders reports that since the outbreak of the popular uprising last March, the Syrian regime has arrested 84 journalists, and has assaulted and arrested over 31 bloggers. This is occurring under a tight censorship of media which is banned from entering cities that are witnessing violence.

Though Arab observers have entered Syria, the censorship and the harassment of journalists persists.

Amnesty International’s report concludes that “Despite oppression, people from all across the region are refusing to be deterred from their struggle for dignity and justice.This gives us hope that 2012 might be a good year for Human Rights,” showing that the gloomy picture has discouraged the Arab people.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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