The Arab media How governments handle the news

The Arab media            How governments handle the news

PREDICTABILITY is a trait that few would ascribe to the Middle East, yet Arab interior ministers have gathered quietly, every winter for the past 25 years, to talk about how better to secure the regimes they serve. At this year”s summit, in Tunis, the security chiefs agreed to toughen rules on publishing, recording or distributing material that might promote terrorism. A worthy goal, surely, except that the region”s authorities have a habit of defining as crimes the kind of things their critics would deem legitimate dissent.

Despite the flourishing of alternative media, such as satellite television and internet blogs, that challenge once-impregnable state monopolies on the flow of news, governments keep finding new ways to suppress contrary views. Whereas the dictatorships of old snuffed out opponents or chucked them in jail, today”s softer incarnations achieve similar silence by subtler means. Hyper-regulation via catch-all laws, plus financial carrots and sticks, tend to replace cruder direct control.

In draconian Syria, the vague crime of “disseminating false information” carries a stiff jail sentence. But as many journalists in relatively liberal Morocco have discovered, to criticise public officials is to risk libel charges that carry ruinous fines. Jordan, another semi-constitutional monarchy, recently issued a press law that independent-minded journalists suspect will be used against them, stipulating stiff penalties for slander. The regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, a pro-Western enclave, is working on a similarly restrictive law. In Yemen last year, Abdel Karim Khaiwani, who edits a news website, found himself facing a possible death sentence for allegedly supporting terrorism after reporting on such issues as a bloody tribal rebellion and nepotism in President Ali Abdullah Saleh”s government.

In many such cases, the state itself need not dirty its own fingers. Pro-government lawyers in Egypt filed a barrage of private lawsuits last year against editors who had, among other things, rubbished the ruling party and speculated on the state of President Hosni Mubarak”s health; four were imprisoned. Plaintiffs in Kuwait, supposedly acting as private citizens, succeeded in winning hefty damages from the al-Jazeera satellite network because it had allegedly insulted their country. In tightly-controlled Tunisia, a journalist who had dared to air widely whispered rumours of corruption among President Ben Ali”s relatives was charged with public indecency and insulting a state official after what appeared to be a staged altercation with police. He was sentenced in January to a year behind bars.

Older methods still work, too. According to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based lobby, more than 200 media workers have lost their lives in Iraq since 2003. In the same period, prominent journalists in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Sudan have been killed or gone missing in suspicious circumstances. In the past two months alone, the authorities in Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have summarily jailed reporters or internet bloggers.

Non-Arab Iran continues to lead the region in banning newspapers. Under the fundamentalist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dozens of reformist publications have had their licences revoked. The most recent victim, a popular women”s magazine, was accused of “threatening the psychological security of society” and of having “weakened military and revolutionary institutions”.

In January, after several participants in a call-in television show criticised a recent salary increase for government employees as too small, the Saudi authorities stopped any programme from being beamed live. The kingdom”s minister of information then barred journalists from seeing himself questioned in the kingdom”s all-appointed proto-parliament, the Shura Council. Saudi Arabia, like Iran, Syria and Tunisia, extensively monitors the internet, blocking tens of thousands of websites, ostensibly to protect public morality. Even Yemen, with its less sophisticated electronic means, has joined in. In recent weeks, half a dozen opposition news sites have suddenly become inaccessible to local users.

With satellite dishes proliferating even in remote villages across the Middle East, television has proved harder to control by such means. Governments have instead put pressure on the states that host stations. A recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for instance, has produced a marked toning down of news about the kingdom on al-Jazeera, which is based in Qatar. The mooted new rules on incitement to terrorism may have been partly intended to stop the channel, still by far the most popular across the region, from broadcasting statements by Islamist militants. But the last time al-Jazeera aired a video from al-Qaeda”s fugitive leader, Osama bin Laden, Islamist radicals fumed that the footage was so heavily edited that it completely distorted the message.