Region in Focus
Amid historic upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa at the start of 2011, the media has maintained a significant role.
From broadcasting images of angry protesters taking to the streets, to documenting instances of police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, the region’s media has sought to bring the truth of the uprisings to eager viewers. However, even as some outlets strive to deliver uncensored, raw reporting – state-run publications and broadcasters usually aim to project just the opposite: a picture of calm and normalcy.
The unprecedented happenings have made for an interesting case study into the realm of media freedom in the region, where each country boasts different national constitutions and press laws but share a determination to control the news.
All countries in the region ban journalists from dealing with sensitive topics (e.g. religion, borders, military details and huge fortunes of rulers). Almost all have an elite that cannot be criticised (presidents, reigning families, super-rich citizens and those tied to the regime). They jump to censor the media as soon as it reports social unrest - or seeks to bear witness to a war.
The region's governments shelve their ideological differences to agree that freedom of expression is dangerous, saying that media outlets which defend it are potential threats. This is true even for governments that claim to be modernising.
But things are slowly moving in the right direction and taboos are shrinking. Journalists are less docile and some are rebelling. Government news monopolies are cracking, with the rise of satellite TV stations that mock frontiers.
The internet frequently gets around the censors, despite imprisonment of bloggers and other users. Fresh newspapers spring up and old iconoclastic ones keep going, despite the odds - proof that authoritarian regimes and malleable media are not eternal features of the region.
But the path to modern media freedom is arduous with many pitfalls - a case of one step forward and two steps back. And governments still cite the same tired excuses for opposing media freedom, such as religious friction, the population's lack of maturity, and the government's own vulnerability. There are countless other justifications for clamping down on freedom of expression.
Among the problems needing attention are repressive laws, endless trials of journalists, disproportionate fines and lack of effective independent organisations to defend journalists. And there remains a clear failure to punish armed forces who physically attack journalists, sometimes killing them, as with the Israeli army in the Palestinian Territories and with the US army - and terrorist groups - in Iraq.
The war on terrorism has been used to justify all kinds of abuses, including imprisonment of journalists, but it cannot excuse the eagerness with which some dismiss even the idea of democracy and its companion, media freedom. The media must combat self-censorship, and journalists must find the courage to go on fighting for freedom of expression. Ordinary citizens can help in this struggle, which is not just for media professionals to wage.
Iran currently has nearly 30 journalists and bloggers in custody, making it one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists.
Following the disputed presidential election of June 2009, journalists in the country reported a significant rollback of press freedom - with more than 100 journalists arrested after the poll.
Twelve newspapers were suspended and thousands of web pages blocked. Satellite dishes are technically illegal in the country, though their use had been tolerated. Following the unrest after the 2009 election, authorities began confiscating dishes.
During the unrest, journalists and bloggers faced charges of being “spies in the pay of foreigners”. Some were sentenced to between five and nine years in prison, though they were eventually released upon the payment of exorbitant bail bonds. Following their release, they regularly faced political pressure to keep publicly silent and turn on their colleagues.
Journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, arrested on June 14, was sentenced to five years in prison and faces a lifetime ban on writing. He was hospitalised in August from the effects of a 17-day hunger strike and 40 days solitary confinement. He is still in custody, despite receiving the Golden Pen of Freedom Award for 2010.
Even before the disputed 2009 elections, the press community was rocked by the news of the death of Omidreza Mirsayafi, a blogger who died in Tehran’s Evin prison. His death was followed by the arrest of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi on charges of espionage which she denied. She was subsequently released on May 11, 2009.
Internet freedom is also restricted in Iran, where Facebook and YouTube are difficult to access without the use of proxies.
Until recently, the Libyan government, led by the deposed Muammar Gaddafi, owned and regulated the media.
Mass protests aimed at forcing Gaddafi to step down began in mid-February, culminating in a Day of Rage on February 17, 2011. Throughout the unrest, Gaddafi, who assumed power in a 1969 coup, continued to exercise tight control over the media in the country. He was killed on October 20 2011 by rebels. Footage of his death emerged on the internet soon after he passed.
Since his departure as the country's leader, however, the independent media had already started to grow. New television channels, newspapers and radio stations have begun working, with many enjoying support from the interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC).
Gaddafi's state-television stopped broadcasting mid-August and the staff at new channels are using his empty and largely undamaged studios in cities such as Tripoli.
One of the new stations, Libya TV, is based in Doha and began broadcasting in March 2011. It is headed by the NTC.
When Gaddafi still had power, he had learned some lessons from similar uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, and sought to enact even stricter control over news outlets. The government immediately responded to the protests by prohibiting foreign journalists from entering the country, jamming TV and satellite transmissions and then cutting off the internet and phone networks.
At least four journalists have been killed in fighting between government forces and rebels - photojournalist Tim Hetfherington, Getty photographer Chris Hondros, Libya Al-Hurra reporter Mohamed Al-Nabbous and Al Jazeera cameraman and Ali Hassan Al Jaber.
As the former regime lost its grip in August 2011, some 35 journalists, including many from international organisations, were held captive in a hotel for five days. While they were held hostage, celebrations took place on the streets of Tripoli, one of the last cities to be liberated.
In his 1977 Green Book, Gaddafi said the press is a means of expression for society, not for individuals or businesses. The year 2007 brought significant change with the appearance of privately-owned media outlets. However, it is still unthinkable to criticise the man referred to as Libya’s “Brotherly Leader” and “Guide of the Revolution”.
Access to websites was considered undesirable and systematically blocked but satellite TV cannot be touched. The internet was the only place where independent journalists can express themselves freely, even though this is very risky.
It remains to be seen whether future governments will excercise much control over the media, or if Gaddafi loyalists try and sabotage any attempts to free the press.
United Arab Emirates
Freedom of expression is limited in Oman, which has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said since 1970 and against whom criticism is prohibited.
Despite its growing prosperity, Oman still has no truly independent media. The 1984 press law can be very broadly interpreted, allows heavy fines and up to two years imprisonment, and has still not been revised.
A 2004 Private Radio and Television Companies Law established regulations for setting up private broadcast media outlets, a first for the country.
The information ministry has wide powers to control the media’s editorial policy, and though the government permits private print publications, many accept government subsidies.
Two intellectuals, Abdallah al Ryami and Mohamed el-Harti, have been banned from broadcast media since 2004, after saying on the Iranian TV station Al-Alam that they doubted the Omani regime’s willingness to make democratic reforms. Al Ryami was arrested in Muscat in July 2005 after he posted illicit material online which criticised the human rights situation.
Most radio and TV stations are government-controlled, with a few privately-owned, mainly music stations that have been set up in the past few years. Sultan Qaboos tolerates no criticism of his regime and is likely to be offended by any report showing insufficient respect for Oman’s culture and customs. The few privately-owned publications that get state subsidies censor themselves and are subject to political pressures.
Access to government records and sources is virtually impossible in Oman, especially when they are considered sensitive state security matters. Reporting official events is tricky and the media often has to make do with material put out by the official Oman News Agency.
Oman has little media diversity and one cannot work as a journalist without a rarely-issued government license - which can be cancelled at any time for bureaucratic reasons. The internet is the main venue where Omanis express themselves freely in forums and blogs about sensitive topics such as corruption, controversial government policies and rights violations.
Internet access in Oman is entirely controlled by the government through the state telecommunications firm, Omantel. The few websites dealing with local news are constantly filtered and access to many news sites has been blocked in the past two years.
The government showed its reluctance to allow freedom of expression when the committee in charge of licensing new publications increased the required start-up capital to $500,000 in August 2004, making it almost impossible to set up newspapers independent from the regime and the wealthy businessmen who support it.
Kuwait is home to numerous privately-owned daily and weekly Arabic newspapers and two English-language dailies. For decades, the written press has played a major role in the country’s political debate.
The country enacted press law reform in 2006 that abolished prison sentences for journalists. In addition, a newspaper can only be closed down on the order of a court.
But in January 2010, the Ministry of Information proposed restrictive amendments to the country’s press law that would set stricter penalties for slander and defamation and place criminal penalties for speech that "threatened national unity".
The proposals would also double to two years the existing prison penalty for blasphemy. The proposal sparked an outcry from journalists in Kuwait, and the law was pending in parliament at the end of 2010.
The Kuwait Journalists’ Association has recorded more than 90 defamation cases currently under judgement.
There are “red lines” that the country’s journalists cannot cross. The head of state, members of the royal family and people holding key posts all remain sensitive subjects that are not typically raised. Overall, the level of self-censorship among Kuwaiti journalists is high.
Saudi authorities maintain strict control over news and information in the country.
Some reforms were introduced in 2005 after King Abdullah ascended to the throne, but a recent media law has imposed new restrictions and threatened hefty fines and closure of news organisations allegedly undermining national security.
Under a decree issued by King Abdullah in May 2011, the media will be prohibited from reporting anything that contradicts the strict Islamic sharia law or serves "foreign interests and undermines national security."
The decree requires publishers to stick to objective and constructive criticism that serves the general interest.
"All those responsible for publication are banned from publishing ... anything contradicting Islamic Sharia Law; anything inciting disruption of state security or public order or anything serving foreign interests that contradict national interests," the state news agency SPA said.
In addition to a threat to close publishers who violate the decree, the authorities can also ban a writer for life from contributing to any media organisation. violators also face fines of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000, 90,000 euros).
The Saudi media is tightly supervised by the government, and the most prominent newspapers are owned by people who are a part of or closely linked to the ruling Al-Saud dynasty.
Foreign journalists who visit the country are routinely accompanied by official minders who report on the content of their work.
In 2009, authorities closed the offices of the Lebanese satellite channel LBC after it aired a programme accused of “conflicting with morality”. A female journalist working for the channel was sentenced to 60 lashes before being pardoned by the king.
The following year, Jamal Khashoggi resigned from his post as editor-in-chief of Al-Watan, one of the country’s most progressive dailies. His resignation in May 2010 came shortly after the newspaper published a piece criticising Salafism, an ultra-conservative school of Sunni Islam. Khashoggi said he was stepping down "to focus on personal projects", but colleagues told the AFP news agency as well as the BBC that they believed the decision was made because of high-level governmental pressure.
In 1996, Qatar launched the first Arabic-language rolling-news satellite TV station, Al Jazeera, forever changing the media landscape of the region.
Ten years later, it launched Al Jazeera English - the world's first English-language news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East. However, the introduction of the two stations did not do much to alter the level of media freedom in Qatar itself.
The national press, comprising seven Arabic and English-language dailies, is still greatly affected by self-censorship, as in other Gulf states. This is complicated by the fact that most Qatari newspaper staff are foreigners whose residence permits depend on whether they obey the rules imposed by authorities.
Yet the same authorities defend the outspokenness of Al Jazeera - sometimes to the detriment of Qatari diplomatic relations with other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and most recently, Libya and Egypt. This contradiction is seen most clearly in the boldness of Al Jazeera journalists concerning international affairs and the cautiousness they - and those at other Qatari media outlets - display when covering issues inside Qatar.
Thus, media professionals in Qatar walk a tightrope, since they observe self-censorship and consider it dangerous to criticise the government. Reporting on living conditions or dismissal of foreign workers is also taboo. Written journalists must tread carefully to avoid being sacked or even deported.
Journalists are also vulnerable because Qatar has no press association that can defend them before their employers or the authorities, since trade unions are strictly forbidden.
Economic journalists often face insurmountable reporting obstacles. For example, it is usually impossible to check figures put out by local firms.
Qatari legislation does not encourage a free media either. The 1979 press and publications law has never been amended, despite the growing local media scene, which now includes a satellite TV station and internet news sites.
Prohibitions in that law are open to broad interpretation and the law gives substantial power to the authorities. The prime minister’s office can add to the list of prohibitions at any time by simply informing the media. Failure to obey these rules could result in a media outlet being shut down without any right of legal appeal.
The absence of a special court to handle media offences and staffed by judges familiar with how the media works also undermines journalists, who can be imprisoned for infractions that are often badly defined. Moreover, it is hard to know exactly how many journalists have been prosecuted.
Internet access is available, but the government censors certain content and blocks access to sites deemed pornographic or politically sensitive.
The media (even privately-owned) has made little mention of the Civic Initiative for Observance of the Constitution, a petition against the revision of the national constitution, which was approved almost unanimously on November 12, 2008, by the parliament dominated by President Bouteflika’s Alliance présidentielle.
The signatories, including several independent journalists, condemned the abolition of the two-term presidential limit in the 1996 constitution. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s promise that the presidential election in April 2009 would be “democratic, pluralist and transparent” did not manage to allay fears of an illegitimate vote.
Algerians are concerned about political stagnation, lawlessness and the continuance of a state of emergency in force since 1992. The country’s journalists are under extensive government pressure and take refuge in self-censorship.
The most obedient newspapers are rewarded with government advertising, whatever the size of their audience.
Papers do not usually state their circulation as they are required to do. Most newspaper owners are profit-seeking businessmen, and thus are careful to seek favour with the regime.
Several attempts to found independent publications have been stalled, some for several years, because the government has refused to give them a publishing licence. The regime also refuses to open up the broadcasting sector, which it controls with an iron fist.
The most lively reporting and discussion about the 2009 elections is on the internet, where journalists feel much freer. A handful of news websites in Arabic and French launched in the past three years are becoming a popular alternative to the mainstream media.
Foreign journalists based in Algeria and their local fixers are also under great pressure and remain vulnerable. Annual renewal of their work permits is never certain and takes several months to materialize.
In 2002, Bahrain imposed law-decree number 47, which gave new allowances to the written press and abolished rules that had allowed journalists to be imprisoned.
However, journalists can still be tried under criminal law. Moreover, the law allows the country’s culture and information ministry to order the closure of any publication or website making an “attack on the regime, the official state religion, morals or different confessions leading to a breach of the peace” without any judicial ruling.
Since it was approved, many have attempted to reform the publications law. The government put forward its own amendments to the National Assembly in June 2008 but they still have not been debated.
Privately-owned written press has increasingly thrived in the country, though the state has kept a monopoly on the broadcast sector.
In May 2010, Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information ordered the Bahrain bureau of satellite news channel Al Jazeera to halt operations "for having violated professional norms and for failing to observe laws and procedures regulating journalism, printing and publishing," according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
The decision came a day after Al Jazeera aired a program about poverty in Bahrain. The day the ban was announced, authorities denied entry to an Al Jazeera crew that had traveled to Bahrain to interview a former UN official about poverty in the country, according to news reports. The ban on bureau operations remains in effect.
In August of 2010, Ali al-Buainain, the country’s public prosecutor, banned journalists from reporting on the detentions of dozens of opposition activists after a series of arrests that month.
The internet represents a valued space for many journalists and bloggers seeking freedom of expression, although this space is increasingly being brought under government control.
The Bahrain telecommunications company, of which the state is one of the main shareholders, censors pages that it believes incite violence, “national discord”, or are of “pornographic nature”.
Internet users cannot visit pages of some groups on Facebook that are seen as critical of the government, along with 66 other websites involving subjects relating to human rights or politics.
The historic revolution of January 2011 saw the ousting of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and significant newfound media freedoms.
Shortly after taking office as interim prime minister following mass protests that sparked the revolution, Mohammed Ghannouchi announced the government was lifting all restrictions on the media.
He also abolished the country’s information ministry, which had placed tight controls on the media during Ben Ali's 23 years in power.
In January 2011, the Tunisian authorities released Fahem Boukadous, a journalist in jail, Radio Kalima correspondent Nizar Ben Hasan and bloggers Azyz Amamy and Slim Amamou.
Newspapers that had been owned by the state began reporting on issues they would usually shy away from after the former president was deposed. Writers and bloggers started new ventures and published their opinions in an environment which enjoyed more freedom.
Some argue that there is much more that needs to be done, however, and that shaking off decades of censorship has not been easy.
Rights groups continue to call on the country’s interim leaders to ensure media in the country are allowed the right to remain free and unhindered.
In August 2011, Najiba Hamrouni, the chairwoman of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists. said practices old practices which made journalists fearful of what they could write about have not changed.
During the early stages of revolution, dozens of people were arrested by troops sent in to crush the demonstrations, but the government press and pro-regime media did not mention the situation until the official news agency TAP did, and then only to reassure the public and praise Ben Ali’s major investment plans instead of criticising the disproportionate force used by the troops.
But Al-Hiwar Attounsi, an independent TV station broadcasting via the Hotbird satellite, widely covered the events and gave a voice to the Gafsa victims. The footage broadcast by the station alerted national and international opinion to the abuses committed in the region.
Trade union leaders who led the protests were arrested and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and the government issued an arrest warrant for Al-Hiwar Attounsi’s local correspondent, Fahem Boukadou. He was sentenced a few months later to six years imprisonment for “belonging to a group of criminals” and “broadcasting material likely to disturb public order”. An appeals court upheld his sentence in July 2010.
The survival of independent media outlets, such as Al-Hiwar Attounsi and the webmagazine Kalima, along with pro-opposition papers such as Al-Maoukif and the recently-founded Mouwatinoun, has depended on the goodwill of authorities, who use their existence to boast that the country has a diverse media.
These media outlets face huge financial, legal and security pressure however, with their offices under plainclothes police surveillance and their staff followed and harassed, rarely able to get a press card and excluded from official events.
Kalima has never been given permission by the government to print a paper version and so has published an online version for nearly 10 years that is inaccessible in Tunisia without going through a proxy server.
Other websites face indirect censorship, as do the weekly papers Al-Maoukif and Mouwatinoun, which are rarely on newsstands, despite having a national circulation. Press distributors and vendors are under pressure not to handle them or else to keep them out of sight. Both papers say the government is behind ongoing legal action against them.
The image of openness and freedom of expression that King Mohammed VI’s regime wants to give the outside world slips a little more each year.
Many unspoken taboos have disappeared since the death of King Hassan II more than a decade ago. But many remain. Royal privileges, Western Sahara, the army, state security apparatus and religion are all sensitive topics to be avoided. The strength of these taboos changes all the time and punishment for infractions varies greatly.
A more liberal version of the press law, which was initially amended in 2002, is said to be in the works.
Meanwhile, journalists are still given prison sentences, often after trials without proper defence rights. Morocco has one of region’s liveliest independent media. But the legal uncertainties produce strong self-censorship, especially by faction-plagued newspapers supporting political parties or which are controlled by political or economic interests close to the monarchy. Although arbitrary arrests have become less common, the regime seems to have found a less direct but equally effective way of gagging dissidence by frequently fining papers huge sums.
Radio and TV remain mostly under government control, with a few licences issued to privately-owned radio stations linked to well-known media groups or which are music stations.
After the earlier heavy fines for libel imposed on the weeklies Le Journal Hebdomadaire and TelQuel, Rashid Nini, managing editor of the daily paper Al Massae, was fined 6,120,000 dirhams ($650,000) on October 30, 2008, for saying that four judges had attended a gay marriage ceremony and party in Ksar El Kebir (150km from Rabat), which led to a media clash between hardliners and liberals. Le Journal Hebdomadaire, which had maintained a critical editorial line, was eventually closed in February 2010.
Media outlets are no longer just heavily fined for subversion but are seriously undermined. Al Massae is one popular paper whose editorial positions indirectly challenge the monarchy’s religious foundations and its ostensibly modern image. The throne’s legitimacy is no longer contested by the media but its inconsistency on religion and civil liberties is widely discussed by both hardliners and liberals.
Moroccan authorities turned their attention in late 2010 to international journalists, withdrawing the accreditations of Al Jazeera staff in October. The Ministry of Communications said the satellite channel "seriously distorted Morocco's image and manifestly damaged its interests, most notably its territorial integrity". The statement was referring to the Western Sahara, a region in dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
Religion is a major taboo for the country’s media, with the regime organising demonstrations against Le Journal Hebdomadaire, wrongly accused of publishing the Mohamed cartoons, and censoring the weekly Nichane in 2006 for publishing jokes “against religion”. The French weekly L'Express was banned by the government on October 30, 2008, (with Algeria and Tunisia following suit) for an issue that compared Jesus Christ to the prophet Mohamed which the censor said denigrated Islam.
This showed the sensitivity of the monarchy with regards to freedom of religion and marred the image of tolerance and liberalism that it promotes abroad.
The Moroccan ruler draws his legitimacy from Islam - the king being the “chief believer” who is said to be descended from the Prophet Mohamed. But the regime is sometimes forced to defend very conservative positions so as not to be outflanked by Islamists who dispute its monopoly of politically representing Islam.
Israel has a diverse media sector, reflecting different political views, and press freedom is respected to an extent unrivaled in the region. However, this image is dented by the Israeli army's conduct in the Palestinian Territories, where journalists are regularly harassed by Israeli security forces.
Because of the conflict with the Palestinians and tensions with neighbouring countries, the media are subject to a military censor, to which all material dealing with specific military and strategic infrastructure issues must be referred.
The censor has the power to penalise, shut down, or stop the printing of a newspaper, on the grounds of national security. In practice, however, the censor’s role is quite limited and Israeli publishers can circumvent censorship by quoting "foreign sources". Moreover, the country's laws prohibit hate speech, praising violence and expressions of support for terrorist groups that call for the destruction of Israel.
About a dozen newspapers are published in the country, all privately owned, in addition to at least 90 weekly newspapers and more than 250 periodicals. Permission to launch a newspaper is granted by the Minister of Interior.
The state-owned Israel Broadcast Authority controls the Hebrew-language Channel 1 and Channel 33, an Arabic-language channel launched in 1994. IBA also runs Kol Israel radio, which airs news and other programming in Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi. There are two main national, commercial TV networks - Channel 2 and Channel 10 - and about 15 private radio stations.
Israeli journalists are technically barred from entering the Palestinian territories without military approval, but in practice, the army ignores the presence of Israeli journalists in the West Bank. Citing personal safety, Israeli journalists are strictly prohibited from entering the Gaza Strip. This ban was extended to all foreign journalists during the three-week military assault on Gaza in December 2008 - January 2009. A few foreign reporters were allowed to enter the strip once a ceasefire was declared. Two journalists were killed while reporting during the war.
Two employees for Iran’s Arabic-language TV station, Al-Alam, were sentenced to two months in jail for having reported troop movements in Israel in the hour before Israeli forces entered the Gaza Strip during an offensive on January 3.
Sparking an international outcry, Israeli security forces intercepted a Gaza-bound aid convoy in the Mediterranean on May 31, 2010. Nine people, including a Turkish journalist, were killed in the operation. In the operation, at least 18 journalists were detained and their equipment confiscated.
A Golan Heights–based journalist writing for Syrian TV and the newspaper Al-Watan was arrested in 2007 and spent three years in prison for espionage after he allegedly collaborated with a Syrian army officer.
One controversial case in 2010 involved a gag order barring the domestic media from reporting on the case of an Israeli journalist who had been placed under house arrest and charged with "harming national security". She was accused of stealing more than 2,000 military documents during her compulsory army service and leaking them to the center-left Israeli newspaper Haaretz. One of the articles based on the documents suggested that the military had identified three members of Islamic Jihad as targets for assassination, violating a Supreme Court decision to cease a policy of targeted killings in the Palestinian territories. The gag order was ultimately circumvented and broken from abroad.
In the Palestinian territories, journalists regularly face physical abuse, abduction and confiscation of equipment. Reporters covering protests and clashes between Israeli military and Palestinians often complain of being prevented from taking pictures. In February 2010, several journalists covering an Israeli military operation in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, just outside East Jerusalem, were injured when soldiers fired tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets into a crowd.
A month later, reporters were injured by Israeli forces while covering clashes between soldiers and Palestinians in the courtyard outside Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.
In a region where state interference in the media sector is more or less the rule, Lebanon stands out with its diverse media landscape. Criticism of officials and policies is tolerated and carried frequently in many publications.
However, freedom of expression has been undermined by political unrest. The media sector is sharply divided according to religious and political affiliations. And many outlets are owned by politicians.
An increase in tensions was reflected in the media as the UN-sponsored Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri neared issuing indictments. Media outlets with different political affiliations presented competing narratives of the tribunal's activities - two of the more notable being the TV coverage aired on the al-Hariri family-owned Al-Mustaqbal and the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar.
Hundreds of periodicals and at least a dozen daily newspapers are published in the country. All national daily newspapers are privately owned, as are most television and radio outlets, including dozens of radio stations.
The country’s press law prohibits publishing news that “contradicts public ethics” or incites sectarian strife. Violators are fined if found guilty. Authorities also use libel laws to deter journalists from criticising officials.
Reporting critically on the military is a red line, and 2010 saw increased harassment of bloggers and journalists who criticise the army and certain high-ranking officials. Four people were briefly detained in the summer for posting negative comments online about the president. A blogger was interrogated by military intelligence for posts critical of the armed forces during the same time period.
Journalists still fear becoming targets of physical abuse. But unlike in other Arab states, authorities are not behind this threat.
Two anti-Syrian journalists were killed in 2005, the year of the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri and several other politically motivated killings.
In August 2010, a reporter was killed in the crossfire while covering a border clash between Israeli and Lebanese military forces. Assaf Abu Rahal, working for the daily Al-Akhbar, was struck by an Israeli shell.
Most recently, several reporters covering demonstrations following the collapse of the government in January 2011 were assaulted by protesters angered by the appointment of Najib Mikati as the new prime minister.
An Al Jazeera TV van was burnt and the army had to evacuate journalists from different media outlets who were prevented from leaving a building set on fire in Tripoli.
Before the government fell apart, it was in the midst of an intense debate on media reform. The current laws regulating media have been described as "contradictory" and "outdated", with one of the criticised parts limiting the number of publications circulated per day.
In June 2010, civil society groups successfully delayed a vote in parliament on a draft for a new information technology law. The bill would have limited journalistic freedom online and set up a commission with wide-ranging powers of surveillance and access to information including private email accounts, on the basis of a simple complaint filed against an individual or corporation.
The conflict between the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has had serious consequences for Palestinian journalists and has greatly affected the media.
Authorities in both territories continuously try to silence their opponents.. Media outlets in Gaza linked to the Palestinian Authority have been shut down and Hamas police regularly threaten pro-Fatah journalists.
Meanwhile, journalists with links to Hamas or critical of the Palestinian Authority are frequently interrogated or detained by security forces in the West Bank.
The Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedom reported 218 incidents of aggression and violation of media freedom across the Palestinian territories in 2010, compared to 173 in 2009.
The incidents included physical abuse, abduction and confiscation of equipment and the closure of media institutions.
Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers were blamed for 139 of the 218 incidents, while the Palestinian Security forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were accused of 79 violations.
Palestinian law provides for freedom of the press and states that there should be no censorship. However, restrictions are allowed if "national unity" or "Palestinian values" are threatened.
Foreign journalists are generally less limited in their reporting, but even reporters from international media outlets are subjects to restrictions.
Reporters covering protests and clashes between Israeli military and Palestinians often complain of being prevented from taking pictures.
The Israeli government has banned Israeli journalists from entering the Gaza Strip, and during the January 2009 war, foreign media were denied entry to Gaza as well. The ban was only lifted once a ceasefire was declared.
Two Palestinian journalists were killed in air raids while reporting.
During the war, Israeli forces bombed Hamas-affiliated media offices, and destroyed satellite equipment on the roof of the Al-Johara media building, which houses more than 20 media organisations, including Iran's Press TV.
Press offences were theoretically decriminalised by parliament in March 2007 and King Abdullah has pledged that no journalist should go to prison for his professional work. However, journalists can still be jailed under more than 100 articles in the country's laws. Authorities can impose prison terms on those who violate red lines regarding the monarchy, religion, state institutions and government officials.
Decriminalisation of press offences was accompanied by a big increase in the fines for defamation, "offence against religion" and "publication of news likely to stoke up ethnic and racial tension".
Journalists are under close surveillance from the intelligence services. Reporters and editors cope with the situation by avoiding investigative journalism that could damage politicians. In a 2009 survey by the Amman-based Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists, 94 per cent said they practiced self-censorship.
However, independent magazines and websites have carried articles highly critical of the government, despite the government’s broad powers to close them down.
The state is the main shareholder of major newspapers and has strong influence on the leading dailies. Most broadcast news outlets also remain under state control. There are dozens of private newspapers and magazines.
Jordan's highest judicial authority ruled in 2010 that news websites and other online media are subject to the press and publications law.
In July 2010, Imad al-Ash, a student, was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the king in comments made online. Another student, Hatim al-Shuli, was also arrested for criticising the king in a poem he denied having written. But al-Shuli was released six weeks later.
In an apparent response to protests against the political and economical situation in Jordan, King Abdullah dissolved his cabinet in January 2011. In an interview with the Jordan Times, the new minister of state for media pledged to boost freedom for the press “within the framework of relevant legislation and the country’s culture and traditions”.
Just a couple of days earlier, the popular Ammon News website reported that it had been hacked after refusing to comply with demands from security agents to remove a critical statement from tribal leaders calling for democratic and economic reforms.
Yemen is one of the most repressive states in the world when it comes to media. Violence directed at journalists is very common and random abductions and arrests are frequent.
The situation has been in steady decline since May 2009, when the government forcibly shut down at least eight newspapers, and many journalists say their work conditions are the worst since the reunion of northern and southern Yemen in 1990.
Persecution of journalists has increased even further since protests against President Saleh's rule began in February.
Many reporters have been threatened, attacked or arrested by security forces.
Mohamed Yahia Al-Malayia, a reporter for Al-Salam, and Al-Masdar photographer Jamal al-Sharabi were killed during a deadly attack by government forces on demonstrators in Sanaa on March 18.
Criticising President Saleh or reporting on corruption among senior officials, as well as documenting the government's campaign against southern secessionists or the war with Houthi rebels in the north, are red lines for the press.
The government exerts tight control over broadcast and print institutions and reporters are regularly harassed and intimidated by security forces.
A special Press and Publication Court was established in 2009 to handle criminal cases against journalists.
Mohamed al-Maqaleh, editor of the Yemeni Socialist Party news website Aleshteraki, was abducted in September 2009. In early 2010, the government disclosed that he was in state custody. Al-Maqaleh had produced critical coverage of government airstrikes that killed close to 100 civilians in the fight against Houthi rebels in the Saada region. The court proceedings against him were interrupted without explanation.
In May 2010, the special media court sentenced Sami Ghalib, chief editor of the weekly Al-Nida, and four of his colleagues to a suspended three-month prison term for "undermining the unity" of Yemen. The information minister banned several newspapers, including Al-Watani, because of sympathetic coverage of southern protests.
Numerous reporters for domestic and international media covering the 2011 anti-government protests in the capital Sanaa and across the country have been threatened and briefly detained.
In February, Abdulilah Shaye, working for the state-run Saba news agency, was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly collaborating with al-Qaeda. Shaye is known for his exclusive interviews with the group’s members and has made numerous appearances in international media. The court accused him of being an al-Qaeda "spokesman".
Iraq remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. According to Iraq's Journalistic Observatory, more than 250 journalists and media workers have been killed in the country since 2003.
The head of satellite station Al-Masar TV, Taha Al-Alawi, was killed on April 8 after gunmen opened fire on the car in which he was travelling. He was the fifth journalist killed in Iraq since the start of 2011.
Journalists are subject to harassment and intimidation by the security forces of government institutions and political parties. Legal proceedings against newspapers for “defamation” are common.
Seven journalists were killed in 2010, including Riyadh al-Sarray, a presenter of religious and political programs on state-run al-Iraqiya TV in Baghdad.
In May, Sardasht Osman, a freelance journalist, was abducted and killed in Arbil. His family and other journalists believe he was killed because he wrote critical articles about the Kurdistan region's two governing parties.
In July, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle in front of the Al Arabiya channel's bureau. Six people were killed but none of the victims worked for the TV station. The Islamic State of Iraq, an armed group linked to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack, calling the channel "corrupt".
Iraq's 2005 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, as long as it is exercised in a way that "does not violate public order and morality". However, old laws that restrict the media remain, including articles in the penal code that criminalise libel, defamation, the disclosure of state secrets, and the spreading of "false news". Anyone who "insults" the parliament or the government could face up to seven years in prison.
Hundreds of print publications and dozens of private television and radio channels operate in the country. Many are associated with a political party, ethnic group or labour syndicate. For private media, limited advertising revenue results in financial challenges.
The government-controlled Iraqi Media Network includes Al-Iraqiya television, the newspaper Al-Sabah, and radio stations throughout the country. One of the largest Iraqi television stations is Al-Sharqiya, which broadcasts from Dubai and features news and entertainment.
Iraq's internet penetration is the lowest in the region, according to the OpenNet Initiative, but internet cafes are popular with the young. There is no official censoring policy.
Authorities have cracked down on journalists trying to cover anti-government protests in 2011. Security forces have detained dozens of journalists and confiscated equipment.
Several journalists were injured during demonstrations against unemployment and corruption in Sulaymaniyah in February. Protesters attacked the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and local journalists told the Committee to Protect Journalists that guards shot one journalist taking photos and beat another.
Separately in February, freelance journalist Hilal al-Ahmadi was shot dead outside his home in Mosul. Much of his writing focused on administrative corruption.
Intimidation and arrests of journalists have increased in Syria since anti- government demonstrations began in mid-March 2011.
In his first speech since the unrest erupted, President Bashar al-Assad blamed "foreign conspirators", including media outlets, of orchestrating the unrest.
Most foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country, and some reporters, including five employees of Reuters news agency, have been expelled.
Under the emergency law, which was abolished in April after being in place since 1963, Syrian authorities controlled the media with an iron fist. Even after the law was lifted amid mass protests calling for reform, critics say little will change, despite pledges by the president to draft a new media law.
Journalists are closely monitored and many have been harassed or imprisoned.
In February 2011, there was a wave of arrests that targeted bloggers, shortly after 20-year-old Tala al-Mallouhi was sentenced to five years in jail for allegedly spying for the US. Her blog consisted of poems and social commentary, some containing references to restrictions on freedom of expression in Syria. She was held incommunicado for nearly 11 months following her arrest in December 2009.
The internet in Syria is heavily censored, although YouTube and Facebook, banned since 2007, were unblocked in February 2011. Social media sites are used by activists calling for anti-government protests but supporters of the president have launched counter-campaigns with the same tools.
Many websites, such as those related to Islamist organisations, Kurdish politics and human rights, remain blocked. Customers in internet cafes are obliged to show their IDs.
Rights activists had hoped that freedoms would increase when President Assad took power after his father’s death in 2000. The beginning of his presidency, known as the "Damascus Spring", featured the release of political prisoners and open discussion on politics. However, these developments were soon reversed and leading reformists were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Many journalists and writers have been arrested under the 2001 Publications Law, which criminalises the publication of material that harms national unity or tarnishes the image of the state.
The government has cracked down on journalists advocating more rights for the Kurdish minority.
The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression was shut down in 2009.
More than a dozen privately-owned newspapers and magazines have been established in recent years and limited criticism of government policy is tolerated. However, the press law permits the authorities to revoke publishing licenses and mandates that private outlets submit all materials for approval before they can be published. It also imposes punishment on reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to government requests.
Several private TV channels have been closed down in recent years without any official explanation.
The future of Egypt's media is uncertain after the revolution in early 2011 which toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak.
Since the departure of the former president, human rights groups and members of Egypt’s media have claimed that the ruling military council is using some of the same tactics to silence them. Several have been summoned by the military council for questioning about their writing and broadcasts.
In September 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces pulled an Egyptian affiliate of the Qatar-based channel Al Jazeera off the air. The raid on Al Jazeera Live Egypt came one week after Egypt's cabinet announced that it had frozen permits for new satellite television news channels and would re-evaluate existing licenses.
During the protests earlier in the year, authorities launched a heavy crackdown on international media to prevent coverage. Dozens of journalists were detained, injured and threatened.
The government closed Al Jazeera's bureau in Cairo, saying its coverage was biased and was actively agitating protesters. The channel also reported interference on its satellite signals.
Internet and mobile phone communications were completely blocked during parts of the protests, after social media sites had been used to organise rallies.
One journalist, Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, was the only known reporter to be killed in the unrest.
Throughout the 18-day uprising, state-owned media dismissed pro-democracy protesters as traitors and blamed the unrest on foreign conspiracies.
But just one day after Mubarak's fall, state TV issued a statement "congratulating the Egyptian people for their great revolution" and vowed to become more truthful in its reporting.
The front page of the previously pro-Mubarak newspaper Al-Ahram read: "The people ousted the regime".
Egypt's state media comprises TV channels, several radio stations, dozens of newspapers and many magazines. Editors of the three largest newspapers, Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, and Al-Gomhorya, were appointed by the former president.
There are also hundreds of privately-owned newspapers and magazines and several commercial broadcasters, some of which have had particular shows banned for criticising senior officials.
Journalists working for independent media have expressed their views relatively freely in recent years and Egypt is a major regional media player.
However, numerous journalists have been hampered by detentions, lawsuits, and state-sponsored assaults. Criticism of the now-toppled president could be punished by fines or imprisonment.
The internet is not filtered, but some sensitive websites have been occasionally blocked in the past.
The country has scores of active bloggers commenting on politics, despite many of them being harassed and some arrested. Some bloggers reported surveillance and hacking of their personal accounts.
Sudan is in the midst of unprecedented changes, following the January 9 referendum in which residents of South Sudan voted on whether or not to secede from the rest of the country, portioning Africa’s largest country. The measure passed and southern Sudan is to become independent on July 9 2011.
In the run up to the vote however, press freedom organisations kept a watchful eye on the treatment of journalists who tried to cover the historic events due to the woeful state of press freedom in the country.
Among the issues with press freedom in the country is president al-Bashir’s failure to keep a pledge to lift prior censorship on the written press. He has also failed to lift a ban on some privately owned publications, and end the surveillance of many journalists in the capital, Khartoum and elsewhere in the country. In addition, the arrests of journalists have continued.
The government has direct control over TV and radio, and requires that both media reflect government policies. TV has a permanent military censor while a private radio station is in operation.
But in August of 2010, the government announced that censorship of the country’s newspapers had been lifted. In a news conference on August 7, the head of the government media office said censorship had been needed to combat the publication of false reports, adding that some articles had aimed to destroy the country’s relations with its neighbours.
Yet, even as he announced the end of censorship, he warned journalists to behave responsibly and censor themselves on issues that could threaten national unity. The warning indicates the almost nonexistent degree to which censorship will change in the country, despite the announcement.
Further, security services in the country distributed a questionnaire to journalists in 2010 with more than 20 questions about details such as their political affiliation, their home, the plans of their house, the names and professions of their close relatives and their car registration number. The questionnaire is a violation of the rights and freedom of reporters in Sudan, and an indication that the safety of journalists in the country should be questioned.
Civil liberties and more open government steadily returned after the August 2005 overthrow of president Maaouya Ould Sid 'Ahmed Taya's 21-year regime.
The media was consulted about revising the 1991 press law, which in 2006 decriminalised press offences and abolished interior ministry prior censorship. But the new law still needs to be brought up to more liberal international standards, especially concerning foreign media, which can be banned if they “damage the government's reputation.”
The government set up a media regulatory body, HAPA, to oversee public debate during the 2007 election campaign, which the media covered in a very balanced way. Parliament has approved the opening-up of the broadcasting sector but the measure has still not come into force.
Independent media have been worried since General Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power in August 2008.
The opposition has pointed to increased government propaganda and a clear desire to control the media to improve the new regime's image abroad. The president's office has set up a public relations unit that filters all government-controlled radio and TV news and removes all dissenting material. The print media, despite great pressure, is still providing some diversity of opinion, especially as it did in the run-up to the autumn 2009 elections.
The former regime undermined the independent media,an opposition stronghold, by setting up well-funded and unscrupulous “peshmerga” publications that blackmailed businessmen and politicians and could be bought off, thus debasing public discussion. As a result, advertising revenue and access to state funding has slumped sharply for the independent press, which is calling for stricter enforcementof rules for setting up new publications.
The media censors itself about very sensitive topics, such as ethnic minorities, slavery, religion and racial discrimination.
Journalists also face the intolerance of the country's clans and tribes, which make threats to media outlets saying things they dislike. Regional Islamist terrorist networks threaten the media too and one journalist received death threats after reporting on militants suspected of ties with al-Qaeda.
In addition, one journalist was imprisoned in June 2009 – proof that the government still has work to do to improve media freedom in the country.