The march from fake news to no news is as straight and unbroken as the runway from Washington, DC to Riyadh.
Tyranny knows no truth … just unbridled power and a drive to extinguish it whether by mob appeal or the slam of a prison gate. Today, we are witness to a unity of drive and purpose, in both West and East, where full-scale attacks on debate and dissent have become very much the norm … with news outlets shuttered, journalists jailed and thinkers shamed.
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Whether it is the most recent royal family in Washington, the perpetual caste in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the wannabe one in Cairo, diversity of thought, identity and purpose is under siege in ways not seen since Galileo dared to suggest that a central tenet of Christian cosmology – that the Earth lies at the centre of the universe – was factually untrue. Charged with heresy, Galileo was forced to recount and abjure.
Today, in many places, the channel of peeling truth from cosmetic reality has moved well beyond the mere papal process of 16th-century Europe to the full-on embrace of singularity of thought, be it coerced by force, banishment or closure.
Nowhere is this more painfully evident than it is, today, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) where a coalition of states, along with an assist from the North African state of Egypt, have challenged Qatar’s independence by a subterfuge checklist that, in reality, boils down to their fear of Al Jazeera and what it represents in a region ruled by censorship.
Saudi Arabia has no autonomous media, nor does it endure political parties, unions or human rights groups. The government treats online journalists, writing for state-approved news outlets, the same as it does print and broadcast journalists … subjecting them to exacting regulation and content-based intimidation.
The internet, alone, is the sole means, within Saudi Arabia, by which a relatively robust exchange of information, from within and without the state, can circulate. However, its closely monitored “citizen-journalists” are subject to strict filtering mechanisms that scrutinise and, often, block their internet content.
Make no mistake about it, the demand that Al Jazeera close its door, as so much the price of regional 'peace', is nothing short of a desperate autocratic drive to strip the human spirit of its thirst for knowledge and its innate right to grow.
Indeed, authorities regularly monitor websites, blogs and chat rooms, as well as the content of e-mail and mobile-phone text messages.
Sites that contain “harmful”, illegal, anti-Islamic, or offensive material are blocked … as are those that carry criticism of Saudi Arabia, the royal family, or the other Gulf states.
So, too, sites that call for political reform or are critical of the current political and social landscape are blocked, as are human rights websites making the country one of the world’s most repressive with respect to freedom of expression whether online or in print.
For those whose print and internet communications, or blogs, cross the rigid and narrow divide of government criticism, they run the risk of swift state reprisal … often arrest and detainment, without specific charges, for critical or controversial remarks. Others have been accused of blasphemy, inciting chaos and defaming the king and state which can bring punishments that can run into years of imprisonment and, at times, include flogging.
Several cases speak volumes about a Saudi state that seeks to silence dialogue with ruthless punishment meted out against those who dare to dissent.
For example, Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 on a charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. Subsequently he was prosecuted for apostasy and criticising the regime on his blog … which included material critical of “senior religious figures” and which suggested that Riyadh’s Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University had become “a den for terrorists“.
For pure speech, and nothing else, Badawi was convicted on several charges in 2013, and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. In 2014 his sentence was increased to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine. The first 50 lashes were administered on January 9, 2015 with the remainder postponed more than a dozen times since.
After his arrest, Amnesty International designated Badawi a prisoner of conscience, “detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”. Human Rights Watch has noted: “The charges against him, based solely to Badawi’s involvement in setting up a website for peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures, violate his right to freedom of expression”.
Meanwhile, Badawi’s attorney, Waleed Abu al-Khair, himself a prominent human rights activist, continues to serve a 15-year sentence on charges imposed on him in 2014 stemming solely from his criticism of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, Waleed was found guilty by a security court of: disobeying the ruler and seeking to remove his legitimacy, insulting the judiciary and questioning the integrity of judges, setting up an unlicensed organisation, harming the reputation of the state by communicating with international organisations and preparing, storing, and sending information that harms public order.
In March 2016, Saudi Arabia sentenced journalist Alaa Brinji to five years in prison plus an eight-year travel ban for tweets in which he criticised religious authorities and voiced support for the right of women to drive and for jailed human rights activists.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ranked 168th out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders (RSF) 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Bahrain, an island kingdom located off of the eastern coastline of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, is no more respectful of speech and press freedoms. It was listed 164th in the most recent RSF world rankings. It sees independent and vigorous journalism as an ever-present danger to its ability to control the state’s domestic narrative and to maintain political power.
Infamous for jailing large numbers of journalists – in particular photographers and cameramen – Bahrain has a history of targeting political dissidents as well. Their crimes are typically little more than the will to challenge blanket restrictions upon assembly and prohibited speech.
Journalists and dissidents convicted of charges that include unlawful demonstrations and supporting “terrorism” typically receive long sentences. Often mistreated in detention, many have been imprisoned for life. Others have been sentenced to death.
Not long ago, a raid by Bahrain security forces left five people dead and hundreds detained. Recently, a court sentenced two young anti-regime protesters to death; two others were imprisoned for life and eight received sentences of three to 10 years. Nine of the pro-democracy activists saw their nationality revoked.
To understand the full nature and extent of Egypt's current effort to control what is reported, and how, one need only consider who has been targeted, and for what, since the military coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.
Just this past month, al-Wasat, the island’s sole independent newspaper, was closed in yet another government effort to control the free flow of information among its population of a little more than one million.
Describing it as a temporary suspension “until further notice”, the government accused this highly respected newspaper of “dissemination of information that affects national unity and the kingdom’s relationship with other countries”.
When it comes to state repression of media freedom, Egypt stands alone. As we say in the law, it’s sui generis… one of a kind.
Since the revolution of 2011, and the subsequent military coup of 2013, more than a dozen journalists have been killed. None have been the subject of proper and thorough investigation. No one has been held accountable. Countless others have been injured, many tortured, by security officials after having been swept up for little more than covering demonstrations.
Although precise figures are difficult to obtain, it has been estimated by various human rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), that, today, hundreds of journalists, bloggers and social media activists are entombed in maximum-security prisons throughout Egypt. Many will spend years in detention – uncharged and untried. Others face long jail terms, including life sentences, in political witch hunts targeting those seen as enemies of the state … often subjected to mass trials, by the hundreds, denied even a modicum of due process. In 2015 alone, some 600 people were sentenced to death in show trials.
Under a terrorism law adopted in August 2015, journalists are obliged to report only the official version of “terrorist” attacks. Failure to do so renders the offender subject to punishments ranging from a loss of government licence to fines and imprisonment.
In the summer of 2015, three privately owned newspapers were prevented from printing articles that were critical of the Egyptian president.
Earlier this year, the government banned circulation of an edition of an Egyptian weekly newspaper with an image, on its cover, of famed ex-football player Mohamed Aboutrika and his mother.
Designated a “terrorist” for his support of the presidential bid of the Muslim Brotherhood‘s Mohamed Morsi in 2012, today, Aboutrika lives in Qatar where he works as a sports analyst.
Recently, Egyptian authorities suspended two issues of a privately owned newspaper after it published a front-page editorial blaming the interior ministry for the Palm Sunday church bombings.
In December 2016, Egypt’s president ratified a new law regulating media outlets which extended his control over them. The law creates three regulatory bodies: two to oversee state-owned press and media organisations and a Higher Council for Media Regulation to “regulate” all of Egypt’s media outlets – whether public or private. It has the authority to fine, or suspend, publications and broadcasters, and to issue or revoke foreign media permits.
To understand the full nature and extent of Egypt’s current effort to control what is reported, and how, one need only consider who has been targeted, and for what, since the military coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.
In 2016, the head of Egypt’s Journalists’ Union and two board members stood trial in Cairo, charged largely with spreading “false news”. In what was described as an “effort to muzzle the media”, after a seven-month trial the three were convicted of harbouring two journalists who wrote for a website critical of the government and sentenced to two years in prison and fined $650.
Other prominent journalists have been swept up in what has been described as little more than a government effort to create a “state of fear”. According to CPJ, photojournalist Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, known as “Shawkan”, has been imprisoned since 2013, along with 700 others, for covering the dispersal of a pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-in. Recipient of a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2016, “Shawkan” remains imprisoned and untried despite deteriorating health.
Others on the CPJ list of detained Egyptian journalists include Mahmoud Abdel Naby, a correspondent for Rassd News Network (RNN), who has been imprisoned since 2013. Also arrested, in 2013, were RNN executive director Abdullah al-Fakharany, co-founder Samhy Mostafa and Amgad TV presenter Mohamed al-Adly.
According to CPJ, the trio was charged with “spreading chaos” during the government dispersal of the sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adaweya.
CPJ has also followed the cases of other Egyptian journalists facing human rights abuses such as Abdallah Shousha from Amgad TV, Omar Abdel Maqsoud from Misr al-Arabia, Sabry Anwar from El Badil, Mohamed el-Battawy from Akhbar al-Youm, Abdelrahman Abdelsalam Yaqot from the Karmoz website and Hisham Gaafar, director of the Mada Foundation for Media Development.
Others held include freelance journalists Hassan el-Kabbani and Ismail Iskanderani, detained for several years without trial, and well-known human rights activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is serving a five-year prison term based on protest charges alone.
Egypt is ranked 161 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Al Jazeera is one voice of many. It competes with a crescendo of other information partisans who seek to influence today's vision and tomorrow's journey.
The attack on Al Jazeera
According to the Egyptian human rights group, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, between May 24 and June 30, 2017, state authorities blocked access to at least 118 websites including dozens of alternative news sources. The number was considerably higher than the 21 sites security officials announced had been censored for “spreading lies” and “supporting terrorism”.
The information blackout came in the wake of similar moves by GCC members Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, which blocked access to websites funded by Qatar, including Al Jazeera.
Although the these countries claimed the block was necessitated by the hacking of Qatar News Agency (QNA) and the ensuing fake news report, it proved to be the first information broadside in a coordinated effort to control the independent narrative that Qatar-funded news organisations, most importantly Al Jazeera, have been making available to several hundred million viewers in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
In the days to come, what began with a move to control website access quickly escalated to a complete break in diplomatic relations in which the Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt demanded of Qatar that it close the international network Al Jazeera, and defund various other news sources including Al Arabi Al Jadeed, Middle East Eye, Arabi21 and Egypt’s Rassd News Agency.
Although other demands were made of Qatar, it is clear that a prime focus in this staged diplomatic crisis, is a desire to once again limit access to independent news sources for the region’s restive populations.
Indeed, starting in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia started increasingly acquiring newspapers and TV channels, employing many of the region’s most respected journalists of the day. Although the government permitted some diversity of thought and expanded coverage of Arab and international issues, no critical discussion of Saudi Arabia and its royal family, direct or otherwise, was permitted.
To some degree, this standard was relaxed by virtue of a joint venture between the Saudi-controlled Orbit Communications Company and the BBC, as they introduced an Arabic-language television station to the region. It proved, however, to be short-lived, closing less than two years later because of growing censorship demands by the Saudi government, which included refusal to permit the station to air prominent dissident viewpoints.
That was to soon change. In 1996 Al Jazeera opened, staffed largely by those same dissenting voices that lost their jobs with the closure of the Saudi-based Arabic-language BBC world service news channel.
In just five years, it became the most widely viewed Arab television station for news. Within ten years, three-quarters of Arabs looked to it as their primary source of information.
From its start there was a backlash against Al Jazeera which manifested itself in a variety of ways and intensified over time. Thus, in May 2002, Bahrain banned Al Jazeera’s broadcasts from within its borders, owing to the channel’s comments about Bahrain’s municipal elections, labelling it as “serving Zionism”. Saudi Arabia also criticised Al Jazeera’s editorial line from the beginning and tried to pressure Qatar to censor the network.
Of all the states in the region, none has been more fearful or punitive towards Al Jazeera than Egypt, which has long targeted it in a transparent drive to maintain government control of information for this nation of 90 million, which have seen both a revolution and military coup in this decade alone.
Indeed, Egypt’s recent decision to use Al Jazeera as a handy pretext to divert attention from internal political repression and failure is by no means of recent vintage. Since the military coup of 2013, the regime of Sisi has proven resilient and, arguably, desperate, in looking elsewhere to craft convenient foils in its own political and economic missteps.
To look towards Egypt as a veritable primer in state repression of free speech and information is a perverse understatement. Thus, not long after the coup, charges were filed against Al Jazeera TV host Ahmed Mansour, an Egyptian national, who was tried, in absentia, on allegations dating back to Tahrir Square in the final days of the 2011 revolution.
When Egypt sought Mansour’s extradition from Germany to face a 15-year sentence, it refused the request, taking note that “Egypt’s judicial system is politically motivated”.
On other occasions the Sisi government has purposely targeted Al Jazeera journalists. In 2013, ten of its employees were accused of spreading “false news” while covering public demonstrations against the military coup that removed President Mohamed Morsi. Ultimately, only three, Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, were detained, spending more than a year in jail.
In 2016, a Cairo court sentenced a former director of news of Al Jazeera Arabic, Ibrahim Helal, to death, charging him, in absentia, with endangering national security.
This past December, Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian national, was detained upon arrival at Cairo airport. Not long thereafter, Egypt’s interior ministry accused Hussein of “disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities in order to defame the state’s reputation”. Six months later he remains in custody.
Control of information
From time immemorial, those in power – whether by force of arms, royal edicts or the shade of a ballot box too small to effect meaningful change – have sought to control the dialogue as a desperate effort to hang on to power that is not theirs to own. It will not happen.
The marketplace of ideas transcends time and place. It is a community that knows no wealth, authority or limits. It is a boundless souq that welcomes all … no matter what race, religion or gender.
From the time of Plato to Avicenna to Beauvoir to Marx, women and men of principle and courage have struggled in pursuit of truth. Many have paid the ultimate price, in their search for it, while others have fled it … sated with the fleeting comfort born of fame or fortune and little else.
Al Jazeera is one voice of many. It competes with a crescendo of other information partisans who seek to influence today’s vision and tomorrow’s journey. This competition of ideas demands the freedom that is untempered speech … if it is to work, and work well.
At times, Al Jazeera is surely right, at others, mistaken. Ultimately, it matters not. Al Jazeera is a much-needed voice and a welcome space for the freedom of voices in agreement and opposition.
Voices bring thought. Thought brings information. Information is knowledge. Knowledge is power.
Stanley L Cohen is a lawyer and human rights activist who has done extensive work in the Middle East and Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.