Can free speech survive in the Arab world?

The lights of free speech are being steadily extinguished across the Arab world, heralding a new era of ignorance, intolerance and repression.

Saddest of all, the majority of Arabs — who saw free speech as the only gain from the Arab Spring upheavals — now seem willing to accept the loss of this universal human right, in return for promises of stability and economic prosperity.

The chaotic trend across much of the region, with states collapsing in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, is also allowing emboldened leaders to restore the old order. Security, not democracy, is now the top priority for a critical mass of Arabs. Gone are the popular slogans of the past four years: social justice, rule of law, ending endemic corruption, democratic values, the right to information and professional media. It may be generations before independent voices are heard again in the Arab world.

Alarmingly, an alliance of governments, private media businesses as well as the ordinary public has set itself against dissenting voices which are portrayed increasingly as a threat to state security. So has journalism in the region become an impossible job? In many ways, yes.

Journalists, writers and academics who challenge the official narrative face censorship, arbitrary trials and violence. Many journalists have given up the struggle for a mix of reasons: out of fear, or an opportunistic desire to please the new rulers in return for personal gain.

What is to be done? Nothing much, I’m afraid. The few brave journalists, bent on serving their society as watchdogs, will continue the battle for media independence alone — and at a high cost.

The roll-back on media freedom and human rights has been most visible in Egypt, now the third most dangerous country for journalists after Syria and Iraq. An upsurge in domestic terrorism has strengthened Cairo’s justifications for a crackdown on the press and human rights. The measure has broad public support. Days after more than 30 soldiers were killed in two militant attacks in Sinai, editors of 17 state and privately owned media outlets were encouraged to pledge support  for the government’s anti-terrorism policies, and banned criticism of the police, military and the judiciary in their publications and news broadcasts.

Surprisingly, though, they didn’t have it all their own way. In response, some 600 Egyptian journalists used social media sites to reject their editors’ position and protest against further censorship. But still, the intimidation goes on. Last month Alain Gresh, the chief editor of France’s Le Monde Diplomatique and a frequent visitor to Cairo, was held for two hours along with two Egyptian journalists after they were overheard discussing politics by a woman in a café, who called the police. Seven journalists have been killed in the country since June 30, 2013 and at least 17 more are currently imprisoned for their work, including Al Jazeera English staff Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed on charges of spreading “false news.”

Similar types of pressure are being employed against journalists elsewhere in the region.

Jordan, like most Gulf Arab states, is embracing  a “zero-tolerance” policy toward anyone opposing its involvement in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State.

In the last few days, police arrested the deputy head of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood for criticizing the United Arab Emirate’s decision to name the movement and its local affiliates a “terrorist group.” Amman’s state security prosecutor accused him of harming ties with “a friendly state.” The UAE is among Jordan’s financial donors, and over 200,000 Jordanians work there.

In October, the Media Commission asked radio and television stations not to report on military affairs without seeking prior permission from the army. Otherwise, they risk violating the 1971 State Secrets Law. Weeks ago, the army announced the appointment of a spokesperson to handle media requests. In addition, a new anti-terror law has come into force, with the potential to turn any opponent into a terror suspect. Jordan has also blocked over 260 news websites on the grounds that they failed to obtain the required licenses. They include 7iber, a site that promotes media freedom.

In Syria, local and foreign journalists are deliberately being targeted by the regime as well as militant jihadi groups. More than 110 reporters have been killed since March 2011 and more than 60 are currently detained. Under threat from all sides, the Syrian media are fleeing the country in droves. Foreign correspondents rarely travel to Syria. The result: Islamic State-controlled areas have become information “black holes” from which little or no news coverage is emerging, while several Arab and foreign journalists have been beheaded.

In Lebanon, where newspapers and television serve as the propaganda outlets for businessmen and politicians, the Syrian crisis has reinforced the polarization between pro-Shia media and those supporting the Saudi-backed Sunni coalition.

In both Libya and Yemen, freedom of information is under threat from violence that continues to rock the countries. Yemeni journalists face increasing threats and violence from all sides, but especially from Houthi rebels who took over the capital last September. According to the Yemeni NGO Freedom Foundation, 33 journalists and 19 news media organizations were targeted by the group.

Against this gloomy background, the 7th annual forum of Arab Investigative Journalists opens in Amman on December 5, 2014. More than 320 Arab journalists, editors and media professors — out of 1,100 trained by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) since 2005 — will debate the worrying regression in freedoms across the region and a growing wave of misinformation and character assassination. 

They are stars lighting up Arab skies and setting the bar for professional media that speak truth to those in positions of power, holds them accountable and improves peoples’ lives.   

How can Arab journalists win the battle for independence?

We need to answer that question while we still have the right to ask it. 

Rana Sabbagh 

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