There is a long road ahead for Arab journalists and free speech

Since the Arab Spring, the media has been muzzled, but independent voices and a new US president offer hope.

Journalists take part in a protest against the detention of Ahmed Ramadan, a photojournalist with Egyptian private newspaper "Tahrir", in front of the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo, Egypt on August 17, 2015 [Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Most Arab journalists nowadays are imitating the proverbial three wise monkeys – see, hear and speak no evil – to ensure survival in a region that quickly regressed to dictatorship mode after a brief lull brought about by the 2011 Arab Spring upheavals.

Journalists in the MENA region have never had it easy. The Arab Spring was a moment of hope and the media found a more critical voice, but this did not last long. When things started to go downhill around 2014 after military rule had returned to Egypt, journalists in the largely authoritarian region quickly returned to the habits of many of their predecessors. If they did not, they risked job losses, beatings, arbitrary trials, harassment and jail – all courtesy of upgraded anti-terror laws or new cybercrime laws in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia after brief flirtations with reform.

Today, under these laws, anyone who likes the wrong Facebook post or tweets something that the authorities could misinterpret, risks arrest or trial as has happened to at least a dozen journalist colleagues across the MENA region.

These laws, along with internet restrictions including website closures and blackouts, curb the proliferation of free speech, particularly on social media platforms. A whole range of repressive policies and dictatorships resurging in these states have effectively hammered the final nail into the coffin of free speech.

A decade later, Tunisia alone enjoys relative security, freedom and a flourishing free media. Today, however, the single largest threat is the spectre of corruption in the struggling industry as most private outlets are owned by political parties or businessmen seeking power. State television, after years of being the mouthpiece of Tunisia’s deposed president, is trying to regain people’s confidence and is often more balanced than its private competitors.

Every other Arab state either collapsed into chaos and war – as in Libya, Syria, and Yemen – or returned to business as usual. Like never before, regimes that survived uprisings are using state-of-the-art electronic surveillance systems to monitor the general population to ensure no one can ever challenge their one-man systems.

The silencing of critical media

As a result, many mainstream journalists, columnists, and talk-show hosts, fearful of losing their livelihoods, have opted to remain silent, look the other way or join the growing band of rulers’ cheerleaders.

Most journalists seek survival by serving as mouthpieces of rulers and governments – in Jordan, for example, at least three pro-reform journalists were co-opted into ministerial posts in the last three years. All this leaves independent journalists and editors who put their career on the line to hold officials to account open to attack: from governments, corrupt politicians, oligarchs, militias, the man in the street and often their chief editors – these gatekeepers of information.

Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index colours countries on a map according to their ranking. For years, the MENA region has been black, indicating the worst ranking.

At every turn, journalists, like ordinary Arabs, have given up on basic freedoms and democratic rights for nothing more than vague promises of stability and economic prosperity.

They are more afraid of chaos and death than of the “normal” Arab repression they grew up with. They have found ways to coexist with it; it is the evil they know best. They have accepted dictatorship in return for false security or state perks.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that free and independent journalism is low – or non-existent – on their list of priorities. It is likely to remain this way for the foreseeable future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further silenced the media.

Throughout the region, governments have made it clear that criticism over management of the crisis or of weak health systems will not be tolerated. Officials bridle the media’s narrative of the pandemic to keep public opinion under control. Regimes have turned most media outlets into propaganda tools praising government efforts to battle the pandemic, and fined or jailed journalists who have challenged the official narrative.

Rollback of civil and political rights

As someone who has spent nearly four decades reporting across the region for international media and coaching more than 600 Arab investigative reporters under two pioneering media organisations – Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) – the past seven years have been the most catastrophic and disappointing.

I have experienced and witnessed massive regression of civil and political rights in my country, Jordan – where I stopped writing for two local publications because I was being censored – and in Egypt, where human rights abuses and harassment of the media have become the hallmark of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi since he took power in 2014.

As a journalist and pro-reform columnist, I am subjected to unprecedented state pressure and to increasing surveillance. Colleagues and sources I contact for information on anything from biometric passports to cigarette smuggling often pass on my inquiries to officials. This happened to me at least three times in January alone.

Ominous new measures

I have watched Arab governments come out with ominous new measures against journalists since 2014, taking their cue from Egypt, which set the trend.

Information is being withheld, even in countries like Jordan, the darling of the West and the first Arab state to endorse a law guaranteeing the right to access public information. Today, two in every 10 requests submitted by journalists I work with are answered compared with 6 out of 10 in 2011. The rest are ignored, meaning reporters will struggle to find missing critical information.

Media houses are being censored or forced into self-censorship. In Jordan, 95.2 percent of 250 journalists surveyed by a local media advocacy group in a 2014 report admitted practising self-censorship. Most said they were “too scared” to criticise the king, the security forces or tribal leaders.

Journalists are being intimidated. For example, a Jordanian colleague working on a sensitive story involving embezzlement of state funds told me he was called in by security who themselves expressed opposition to corruption before asking him whether the timing for such a story was right.

Weeks later, police, supposedly responding to a noise complaint in a nearby apartment, entered the colleague’s place and stripped his shelves. The forces had no court authorisation to enter the flat. He decided to sue the government.

There are threats of imprisonment. Egypt has jailed 183 journalists since 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Journalists have adopted pseudonyms to protect their families from punishment. They face defamation and threats on social media and orchestrated online attacks.

Journalists have also been forced to seek refuge in other countries as has happened to at least 20 individuals from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt who, starting in 2013, informed me of their decision to leave their home countries. They were threatened by ISIL (ISIS), the Syrian regime, Houthi fighters in Yemen, militias in Iraq and Arab governments.

And journalists have paid the ultimate price. At least 166 Arab journalists have been killed in crossfire and other circumstances between 2013 and 2020, according to CPJ figures.

They have also been targeted for assassination, including Jamal Khashoggi who was butchered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and Lebanese Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim who was shot dead in Lebanon in early February.

The crackdown was not unexpected

No one was ever under the illusion that journalism and investigative reporting in particular was an easy ride in one of the world’s riskiest regions for reporters.

But what was possible in Jordan and Syria, for example, after the younger generation of rulers succeeded their fathers and promised reform at the turn of the century, or in Egypt where the regime of President Hosni Mubarak was under pressure to open up, is impossible now.

Scores of editors, publishers and reporters who prided themselves in working with ARIJ in 2009 to promote accountability journalism, supported us to engage in serious corruption investigations after the toppling of Mubarak in 2011. But since el-Sisi’s rise to power, they stopped answering our telephone calls. They have banned their journalists from attending most of our workshops.

Disinformation, outright repression and state intelligence’s command over the media became the tools of media control under el-Sisi.

After Mohamed Morsi was deposed, successive governments in Cairo have waged an arbitrary battle to control virtually all forms of public expression and independent media. No longer content with simply influencing press coverage, state security services began buying up much of the media in the last four years.

Can this bleak media situation continue?

Yes and no is the answer.

The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar after a three-year crisis, is slowly easing a media tug of war between their regional television stations, which contributed to unprecedented media polarisation and coverage of the war in Yemen, Libya, Syria and ties with Iran. But the reversal has come at a high price for owners and talk show hosts, who have had to change their editorial tone overnight at the expense of credibility in the eyes of their ordinary viewers.

There is hope that new US President Joe Biden can hold his country’s Arab autocratic allies, especially those dependent on Washington’s economic and military aid, namely, Egypt and Jordan, more accountable to improved human rights and free speech. He can take the lead to reverse this trend as a matter of global strategic importance.

He should make the protection of press freedom a priority for his foreign policy, tie this to foreign aid, and appoint a special presidential envoy for press freedom. The envoy should oversee the rebuilding of structures that have traditionally supported journalists around the world and investigate abuses against journalists.

Technology continues to develop and to offer new freedom and connectivity choices. The report, Social Media in the Middle East: 2019 in review, says that in the past five years mobile social media in the region has doubled, and is now at 44 percent. Nine out of 10 young people every day use at least one social media channel. Facebook continues to grow with Egypt at 38 million daily users, making it the region’s largest market. Saudi Arabia is the fifth-largest market for Twitter in the world, although the use of Twitter across the region has been cut nearly in half compared with 2013.

In 2019, greater scrutiny from Facebook, Twitter and Telegram prompted the platforms to close hundreds of accounts to prevent state actors and “terrorist” and armed groups from manipulating their audiences with mis- or disinformation campaigns, the study says.

New independent nonprofit media models are emerging across the region, relying on growing foreign institutional funding. Mada Masr, Egypt’s last independent website, is one example. Its co-founder and editor-in-chief Lina Attalah was listed among Time’s 100 most influential people around the world in 2020 despite Cairo’s continued harassment of the donor-funded platform, which insists on holding power to account. Professional coverage has helped. Whenever Attalah or her team are detained, an international outcry leads to their rescue. Daraj in Lebanon, 7iber in Jordan and Inkyfada in Tunisia, are other donor-funded media platforms focusing on investigative journalism and taboo issues.

But the choices most Arab journalists face will continue to be stark and unenviable: to be pro or anti-regime, to work for the government or against it.

But that is neither our role nor our job.

When there is no free press, this is what you will get: One government, one judge, one propaganda machine. And many, many jails.

Journalists should not remain silent.

Independent journalists will continue to root out injustice and hardship, to speak for the helpless and hopeless, to not accept staying silent about injustice, incompetence or worse still, the denial of basic rights.

It will take generations before we see the glimmer of free speech, before independent voices can be heard again in the Arab media – before governments can properly be held to account.

This will not be easy. We have to brace for the worst, calculate risks and strive for journalism that serves the public’s right to know and to make decisions based on facts and the truth.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.