The media in the Middle East loved the Intifada. Every detail of Israel’s violations of human rights in the late 1980s in the West Bank and Gaza appeared in the Arabic and Farsi press. The governments that owned or controlled these media outlets loved it, too. When pan-Arab satellite television stations emerged in the 1990s, they looped hours of footage of Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers repressing Palestinians.
News-starved audiences across the region flocked to the new channels, foremost among them Al-Jazeera, owned by the tiny emirate of Qatar. It built a viewership in part by covering social and political issues that national television outlets in larger states like Egypt, Morocco, or Algeria would never touch. “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, a recipient of CPJ’s 2009 International Press Freedom Award.
Outside of the Palestinian issue, however, human rights reporting remained a tiny component of broadcast and print output. Then came the Internet. The digital revolution that started in the late 1990s is still transforming the gathering and dissemination of news in the Arab world, where dictatorships far outnumber democracies. Online journalism and blogging are flourishing. Once-taboo subjects such as human rights abuses are now covered in unprecedented detail by an army of professional and “citizen” journalists in a region with the fastest growth of Internet penetration in the world.
The speed of the transformation caught many governments unaware. But leaders who depend on controlling information for their political survival have awakened, and they are turning to technology to censor and filter the Internet. If that fails, they resort to harassment, attacks, or imprisonments. In the past year or so governments have pushed back against independent reporters and bloggers, but journalists believe that in the long run technology will make it impossible for all but the most authoritarian regimes to stem the tide of information.
For decades, the mainstream media in Egypt ignored human rights reporting. But in 2006, bloggers Mohamed Khaled and Wael Abbas began posting video clips of police brutality. “Once people saw the footage, they had to know more. It was compelling, and left no room for doubt that torture was taking place in our police stations,” Khaled told CPJ. The story became so big that much of the broadcast and print media eventually covered it.
Journalist Noha Atef, who runs TortureInEgypt, a Web site that reports on abuses in Egypt’s police stations and prisons, credits the Internet with bringing human rights reporting to a mass audience. “Reports that used to collect dust on shelves are now being read by thousands of people,” she told CPJ. “You couldn’t get people to read this type of material years ago, not even if you printed it and distributed it free of charge. But, online, people encounter it on their favorite blog or news Web site and they read it. It has become mainstream.”
And the old mainstream is itself changing. “Today I get many stories from the newspaper, whereas a couple of years ago I had to rely almost exclusively on reports by human rights organizations,” Atef said.
Morocco has also seen an increase in human rights reporting. In 2002, the press latched on to the story of Mohamed Ait Sirahal, who was beaten to death in a Marrakesh police station. Sirahal, visiting from his home in France, fell into an argument with a local resident and was arrested. Newspapers unrelentingly covered his family’s three-year legal battle to bring the police officer responsible to justice. A verdict in the trial of Mohamed Kharbouch was postponed 15 times, but thanks to the intensity of media coverage, he was finally convicted in 2007. Free on appeal, Kharbouch faces a 10-year prison sentence.
The Moroccan media’s appetite for human rights issues was further whetted when 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 under his successor, Mohammed VI, as well.
A change of regime in Bahrain provided an opportunity for the press to expand human rights reporting. When he came to power in 1999, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa restored many civil liberties and reinstated parliament, which had been shut down 30 years earlier, in an effort to address the grievances of the majority Shiite population in the Sunni-ruled country. At first, the media dutifully covered the government’s reforms, but then emboldened journalists started writing about the opposition, rising political tensions, and Shiite unrest.
When Bahrain’s Supreme Criminal Court handed down prison terms to 11 men in July 2008 on charges of rioting in late 2007, the media denounced the lack of due process. In a rare move, they published statements by defense lawyers and the families of the accused who claimed the defendants had been arrested merely for attending a peaceful gathering to mourn the death of Ali Jassim Makki, a man who died during a protest a few days earlier. All 11 men are serving prison terms while the case is pending in an appellate court.
A number of Bahraini newspapers, particularly the daily Al-Wasat, covered what came to be known as the Bandargate scandal, an alleged political conspiracy by government officials in Bahrain to stoke strife and further marginalize the Shiite community. The allegations were revealed in September 2006 in a 240-page report produced by the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development. (The press named the scandal after the report’s author, Salah al-Bandar.)
“In the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the quantity as well as quality of reporting on human rights violations and also the work of domestic human rights activists,” Gamal Eid, director of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information, told CPJ. “Much of it began online, but we now also see this type of reporting taking place in print.” In Egypt, for instance, the daily Al-Dustour devotes a full page each Wednesday to reporting on civil society and human rights. The independent daily Nadhet Misr carries an entire page on the same topic every day, and Al-Mal devotes a half page to human rights each day.
“This type of journalism has raised awareness among the public—it has had a positive role,” Abdelaziz Nouaydi, human rights lawyer and president of the Moroccan human rights group Adala, told CPJ. In some cases it has also had a positive outcome. In Egypt, police Capt. Islam Nabih and Cpl. Reda Fathi were sentenced in November 2007 to three years in prison for torturing and sodomizing a man in custody. In Iran, in the aftermath of the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam conceded that detainees had been tortured while in custody, after numerous online publications, notably Norooz and Saham News, published credible reports of rape and abuse of detainees. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered the Kahrizak Prison shut down after the much-publicized deaths of two detainees there.
Throughout the region, a new generation of journalists refuses to serve as ciphers at some gray government daily or as on-air mouthpieces for official propaganda. A 2008 survey of 600 journalists in 13 Arab countries by the American University in Cairo found that most believed their primary mission was to drive reform.
“Seventy-five percent of journalists say that their top priority is political and social change,” Lawrence Pintak, lead author of the survey, told CPJ. “And you see this playing out in this more aggressive coverage around human rights issues, whether it’s in Palestine by a Bahraini journalist or whether it’s in Egypt by Egyptian journalists,” said Pintak, who is now founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
This increased focus on human rights has prompted a backlash from regimes that use government-friendly media to attack individual journalists and outlets. Rights defender Eid notes that the Egyptian daily Rose al-Yusef “devotes page 5 to attacking publications, journalists, and civil society organizations that are vested in human rights investigations and reporting.” In Tunisia, government-owned print and electronic media routinely label critical journalists who write about government abuses as “agents of the West” and “traitors.”
Morocco has turned to a politicized court system to muzzle the press. In 2008, the state-run Consultative Council on Human Rights sued Al-Jarida al-Oula in an attempt to prevent the daily from publishing public domain testimony from the Equity and Reconciliation Commission. In June 2008, a Rabat court ordered Al-Jarida al-Oula to stop publishing victim testimony. The newspaper appealed the ruling even as it continued to publish excerpts describing torture, murders, and forced disappearances. The ruling was upheld by an appeals court in late 2008.
In Bahrain, journalists faced prosecution for reporting on human rights. Maryam al-Shrooqi, a journalist for Al-Wasat, was tried for writing an article about alleged religious discrimination in hiring practices at the Department of Civil Services. The judge dismissed the most serious charges against al-Shrooqi but fined her. Similarly, judicial authorities also sued journalist Lamis Deif after she published a series of articles investigating family court judges and their rulings. “The government has created a culture of fear among reporters and columnists,” Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told CPJ. “Those few reporters who try to write about human rights are marginalized, threatened, and often prosecuted.”
While bloggers and activists are bearing the brunt of the government counterattack, all journalists are feeling the heat. Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, among others, have at times suspended the operations of satellite news channels, particularly Al-Jazeera, for highlighting sensitive human rights, political, or religious issues.
“There was actually more reporting of human rights kinds of issues and democracy kinds of issues a few years ago,” said Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. “Over the last year or so governments and the regimes have hit back quite a bit. The general repression of the media, the crackdown on democratic activism across the region have also taken a toll on human rights reporting,” said Lynch, who is well-known in the region for his blogging under the name Abu Aardvark. He believes the satellite channels have become a little less daring in their reporting of late.
Al-Jazeera anchor Mohamed Krichen disagrees. “No, our editorial policy has not changed. We report on human rights cases when they arise. They are an important part of the news, but do not constitute the entirety of our coverage. We are a news organization, and not a human rights group, and our coverage reflects that,” Krichen told CPJ.
“What we have,” said Pintak, a former CBS correspondent in the Middle East, “is governments in a halting, tentative, confused way trying to adapt to this new landscape. And they are adapting in Egypt by allowing new, semi-independent newspapers to open while at the same time putting pressure on current affairs directors at the satellite channels when they get too far out of line.”
The consensus among those journalists and academics interviewed by CPJ is that any dip in the upward curve of human rights reporting is only temporary. Countries in the region cannot seal off information from the outside world. Many of these nations embrace trade, so they need to embrace the Internet as well. They also have an overwhelmingly young population that is increasingly wired and aware of freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries in other parts of the world.
“This is a very different world from in the ’90s and it’s a world in which governments can no longer completely control the message,” Pintak said. “They can crack down on individual news organizations, they can jail individual reporters, they can harass individual editors, but they can’t stop the flow of information.”