Independence of Arab journalists under fire

Article Summary
Reporters and editors throughout the Middle East try to balance security and stability versus speaking truth to power.

Amid the increasing repression of freedom of expression in Middle Eastern countries that are plagued by terrorism, and following the short detente that accompanied the winds of change in early 2011, questions have been raised about the feasibility of the media’s oversight role in protecting communities from the incursion of authorities.

Many journalists are wondering how to report the facts professionally without ending up in jail amid strict censorship and laws that protect confidentiality and hinder the task of accessing information. Moreover, self-censorship is practiced by a majority of outlets, which avoid writing about sensitive and important topics and cater to a public opinion that renounces alternative perspectives.

They are right

The price of telling the truth these days is significant on both physical and moral levels. Journalists either get arrested or killed by old or re-emerging regime networks. Sometimes they are thrown in the basements of takfiri militias and organizations.

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Journalists who do not cater to the state’s whims fear being brought to trial on doctored charges with no access to the evidence against them. Such charges include “sedition,” “supporting terrorism” and “disturbing relations with a friendly country.” Even worse, these journalists have to face the complicity of their superiors and colleagues, as well as the rejection of their communities. which now consider them a source of discord.

Currently, a minority in journalism enjoys professionalism and courage, determinedly serving their communities by exposing abuses of power and protecting citizens from the exploitation of the influential at a time when chaos is the name of the game. Truth is misrepresented, and maintaining the credibility of this vital sector falls under the category of preserving the national peace and social security.

Members of “the fourth power,” especially in societies scarred by wars and ripped apart by political chaos, live at the mercy of regimes recovering from the specter of collapse and hidden alliances between governments and businessmen who fund media organizations and work alongside state media outlets, which bury their heads in the sand.

Government-funded media outlets have turned into political platforms in order to silence, intimidate and demonize the opinions of others.

Before the Arab Spring, the picture was clear: Government-run media outlets and Arab satellite channels owned by rich governments or influential businessmen loyal to the regime were designed to defend fait accompli policies through embellished writing. Following uprisings across the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists, the Islamic State, liberals, Houthis, leftists, nationalists and remnants of the opposition media emerged as competitors to the dominance of official media outlets, along with thousands of websites and so-called citizen journalists active on social media.

The new and old institutions have affected the political, ethnic and sectarian divisions that are dominant in most of the changing Arab world. This has brought the tradition of journalism as a profession that requires impartiality and objectivity to serve the community to an end. Senior controllers are supposed to be servants of the people, not trustees.

The worst part of this development: The majority of the parties who initially believed that freedom of expression was the only positive outcome of the revolutions are now starting to accept the violation of human rights and sacrificing this universal right in exchange for stability and economic growth. This started after witnessing the collapse of countries such as Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, as well as the troubles of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan.

The old regime

Several leading figures are attempting to re-impose the old regimes, taking advantage of the chaos in the Middle East and the fear that stems from ignorance and poor education, in which the concepts of participation and pluralism are absent. In addition, they are trying to exploit the economic systems that promote corruption, where the individual is dependent on the public sector.

Arabs today, living in the same circumstances as the majority of journalists, believe that a known devil is 10 times better than an unknown one. They complain that the Arab Spring only increased prices and unemployment rates. It has become more difficult to live with all the false talk about alleged democracy and the scenes of massacres in Libya, Syria and Iraq, as millions of refugees flood through the borders around the clock.

They believe that free and independent journalism did not do them any good, and that protecting personal and humanitarian freedoms does not do much good if it comes at the expense of security and stability. And even if people do not realize it, change comes only at a high cost and sacrifices must be made.

Of course there are no simple answers to all the journalists’ questions. However, the media became part of the complications of the region's current quagmire, instead of being a means to provide solutions. Journalists are now facing a new decisive factor.

We should decide the following: Who are we and what kind of mission do we want to carry out?

We are at a crossroads, according to the British journalist Tim Sebastian, who gave a speech titled “Arab Media: The Battle of Independence” at the seventh annual meeting of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.

“The [Arab] journalist today is like someone driving on the freeway but without being able to drive on all lanes at once,” said Sebastian in Amman early last month. “You choose a lane and you stay on it. The option of remaining in the middle of the road so that you are free one day but accept restrictions on the second day slows down your speed. One by one, Arab countries would want to know if you are with or against them, and will classify you accordingly,” he added.

Sebastian, who has been following the Arab scene from within, believes that the media “has reached a critical point and the risk cannot be taken to a higher level.”

“If freedom of expression continues to decline in this region, many generations will pass before you see this freedom again, before we could hear independent voices in the Arab media and before journalists could hold governments accountable for their policies,” he added.

The majority of the media prefers to adapt to the existing regimes as long as they keep their jobs and are able to send their children to school. And here lies the present and future danger.

The decisions that journalists make regarding the priorities of the industry and the quality of reporting will shape the future environment of our children and grandchildren.

The fact is, we need to discover and establish our red lines.

Some have chosen their path in advance: They will not criticize the authorities because they do not want to destabilize the country. This example is seen clearly in Egypt since the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi. Freedom of opinion and expression has declined in a way that raises concerns. Egypt has become the most dangerous state for journalists, followed by Syria, Iraq and Libya.

In Jordan and Bahrain, those who oppose the authority of the state or the mainstream perspectives are facing increasingly radical options. In Yemen, there is a tug of war between the Houthis and those who served the former regime. Syria and Iraq have turned into graves for journalists. In Tunisia, the media have become key players in the legislative and presidential elections between Ennahda, the Brotherhood and Nidaa Tunis.

Amid all of this, the profession is absent

This view is understandable, but it cannot be accepted. It is better for them to join the governments and write their media statements. This is not shameful, because many people within the ministries work with dedication to serve what they consider the public interest. They want to keep things calm and stable without angering society. But this is not part of being a journalist and indicates the troubles the profession is experiencing. Those who do not dare destabilize the country to warn of possible upcoming dangers turn into surgeons who refuse to perform surgery, and therefore do no good to their society and profession.

We should not turn into false witnesses. Instead, we should act as a guardians of society’s interests who tell people about the good and bad happening around them. We should publish the facts to help steer the country toward its best path, and eliminate injustice and suffering, and speak of the miserable and marginalized conditions and help contribute to a better life. Our mission is not to remain silent and accept injustice, inefficiency, repression, torture and violations of fundamental rights.

We are aware that today we are working in the most dangerous profession in the world's hot spots. Yet this does not mean that we do not have responsibilities. The journalist’s mission is to write the first draft of history.

So let’s move away from the lying and the hiding of the facts, and let’s work accurately and professionally, hoping to increase the available freedoms. It is the right of future generations to know what is going on: Who did what to whom, why, how and where. The contribution of our profession is the foundation of educating societies and enhancing democracy.

It is our duty to have the fullest independence and to listen to the views of society, especially those who are not supported by the majority. Our battle focuses on the freedom of expression. We must defend those we do not like as much as those we like. If a single individual is denied freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right and a key to demanding others' human rights, no one will have it, and the whole of society will be in danger.

The freedom of the press means a lot: It means free and tolerant societies that accept the opinions of others, and decides what they believe and want. Recent history has shown that martial law, the prohibition of freedom of opinion and throwing opponents in jail or killing them may delay the explosion, but it will not bring about security and stability.

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Found in: pan-arabism, media, journalism, freedom of press, freedom of expression, arab world
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