Hafidh on Press Freedom in the Arab World [Archives:1998/38/Law & Diplomacy]

September 21 1998

Mr. Salah Hafidh, Secretary General of the Association of Arab Journalists, has recently visited Yemen, heading a delegation representing Arab journalists, the Association of Arab Lawyers and the Arab Human Rights Organizations. Their aim is to evaluate the state of freedom of the press in Arab countries.
Mr. Hafidh is also the Chairman of the Center for Media Studies and Chief Editor of Al-Ahram’s international edition.
He had this to say about press freedom in the Arab World.
Despite the attempts to encroach upon freedom of the press in Egypt, this right has now become firmly established. However, the threat is still present. Several journalists were imprisoned in Egypt, convicted of slander and defamation.
In Jordan, there used to be a margin of democracy – political pluralism and freedom of the press. With the issuance of the new press law, however, much of the press freedom has been chipped off. More severe punishments are now stipulated for journalists who cross the red line.
Following the Gulf War of 1991, a completely different spirit prevailed. Rules governing the press became far more strict than before the war. The chief editor of a daily newspaper, Mohammed Jassem Al-Saqar, has been sentenced to six months imprisonment, and his publication closed.
Lebanon is another “wing” of Arab journalism – the first one being Egypt. This country used to be an oasis of democracy in the Arab World. Three years ago, a new press law was enacted, ostensibly to regulate a plethora of unlicensed radio and TV stations. The law is used as a tool, by political powers from within and without the country, to suppress freedom of the press. It culminated with the President of the Republic slapping a newspaper editor in front of other people.
There is a whole heritage of democracy in Morocco, which prevailed through the ebbs and tides of the democratic process there. Nevertheless, the Moroccan Journalists Syndicate publishes an annual report on violations of press freedom.
Great leaps forward have been made during the last few years regarding freedom of the press and other civil liberties in Yemen.
Other Arab Countries:
In many other Arab countries, whether so-called revolutionary or conservative, journalism has become a mere organ of state or a single individual’s propaganda. Human rights violations take place in countries that claim to be democratic, goodness knows what happens in the undemocratic Arab countries.
In many Arab countries, democracy has turned into a “banner” to be waved about during national events. Arab states and leaders feature prominently in the reports of several international organizations concerned with human rights. In Algeria, 64 journalists were killed. Press freedom and democracy in general face numerous challenges in the Arab World, the least of which are of a legal or a legislative nature.
Role of the Association of Arab Journalists
1- Uncovering violations of press freedom, regardless of any pressure by the authorities;
2- Direct, good-will intervention by delegations investigating individual Arab countries and coming up with recommendations;
3- Attempting to publish an annual report on the conditions of journalists in the Arab World.
The last point has not been quite successful so far, due to rampant self-censorship. Out of fear of their own governments, some journalists syndicate members of the Association of Arab Journalists claim that every thing is well in their own countries. This we know is rarely true. Such acts of self-censorship and attempts to propitiate the authorities greatly impede our work.