A year into the Arab Spring, the journalists, bloggers and Tweeters who risked so much to speak freely have won only partial victories. The media in Tunisia and Libya are enjoying a break to freedom, but in Egypt journalists are being persecuted even more harshly than they were under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In countries in the region where old regimes remain in power – Iran, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – the formal and the informal press continue to be cruelly suppressed. And authoritarian governments outside the region, including China and some former Soviet nations, have tried to inoculate themselves against similar uprisings by cracking down on all forms of dissent.
In a review of the press in six of the Arab Spring countries (Kuwait, Qatar and Oman were not included) published in December, Reporters Without Borders said that journalists, especially photographers, have paid a heavy price for their key role in the revolts. The 11 journalists killed included two well-known international photographers, but most of them were local citizens.
Since newspapers and TV stations are relatively easy to control or suppress, the informal press of the Internet blossomed into the voice of the Arab Spring. When a street vendor in Tunisia committed suicide December 17, 2010, the news spread through Facebook, Twitter and blogs and the country rose up. Since then, the social networks have played a key role in arousing and informing the public in the rest of the Arab world – and the citizen journalists who keep the news and pictures pouring out have suffered more than their professional colleagues. They have been beaten, arrested, tortured, jailed, and have died in custody, but they continue their work.
Egypt offers the most disappointing case in the Middle East, if only because hopes were so high and so little has changed. Egypt remains under a state of emergency nearly a year after Mubarak’s ouster and criticism of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or of the military remain crimes that are tried in military, not civilian, courts. One blogger, Maikel Nabil Sanad, was sentenced to two years in prison last month after being held in custody since March. He had fought unsuccessfully to have his trial moved to a civilian court. Another blogger, Alaa Abdelfattah, was released last month pending his trial on a bloated list of charges including murder, terrorism, stealing a military firearm, and inciting violence against the military.
Violence in the street remains the more usual way of silencing the press in Egypt. Admittedly it might be difficult for the police to distinguish between reporters and rioters in a chaotic scene, but the number of journalists attacked recently in Egypt is suspiciously high. The Committee to Protect Journalists documented 35 cases of attacks on journalists between November 19 and 24 in Cairo and Alexandria. Another 15 attacks in Cairo were reported during a four-day period in December. The attacks included beatings, arrests, destruction of equipment, and raids on offices, hotel rooms and apartments of journalists. Two women, an American-Egyptian freelance, Mona Eltahaway, and a French TV reporter, Caroline Sinz, were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. In one raid, 30 soldiers attacked the transmission facilities of Cairo News Company, a TV production company, and threw about $100,000 worth of equipment out the window.
In Libya and Tunisia, journalists are enjoying genuine freedom. In Libya, 130 new publications had registered by last July, but foreign journalists are encountering unexplained difficulties in getting visas to enter Libya. In Tunisia, a dedicated blogger for freedom, Slim Amamou, who had been imprisoned and tortured by the old regime, became secretary of state for youth and sports soon after the formation of a new government. However, this symbolic step was undermined in July when police deliberately targeted reporters and cameramen at a demonstration. Police beat them and chased them to the offices of La Presse, where they struck a journalist with a metal rod and destroyed his camera. After the incident, the prime minister described journalists as troublemakers. Then in January, two female journalists covering a demonstration by teachers were attacked by plainclothesmen, who seized their cameras. Police dragged one of them along the ground by her hair.
A new press law in Tunisia still treats defamation as a criminal offense, although without jail penalties. The apparatus of censorship remains in place, if unused. Muslim extremists also pose a threat to free expression. Twice extremist mobs have attempted to burn down movie theaters that were showing “Persepolis,” which militants deemed critical of the Iranian revolution, and they have attempted to storm Nesma TV’s offices in Tunis because the station broadcast the film. The station’s owner, Nabil Karoui, has apologized but faces possible prosecution under the old criminal code for offenses against religion.
The Nobel Committee recognized the importance of the press and of women in the Arab Spring by awarding one of three peace prizes last year to Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni journalist who had founded Women Journalists Without Chains and started protests long before the Arab Spring. However, Yemen's repression of the press continues to be as brutal as ever, even though President Ali Abdullah Saleh has agreed to step down. Many journalists have been attacked in recent days. Six have been killed in Yemen since the start of the uprising -- a French journalist was found strangled with an electrical wire in his hotel room in Sanaa on January 2 -- and many more have been beaten, arrested and tortured. Foreign correspondents have been expelled. The founder of the opposition newspaper Al Wasat, Karim Fakwhari, died in police custody and other journalists from the paper have been attacked.
In relatively calm Kuwait, the government shut down the local Al Jazeera TV station in December for covering an unauthorized demonstrators and showing the police dispersing protesters with force, according to Reporters Without Borders. A writer and lawyer, Mohammed Abdel Qader Al-Jassem, was tried 10 times for writing articles criticizing the prime minister. After nine acquittals, a judge finally convicted him and sentenced him to a year at hard labor.
In Bahrain, demonstrators who organized through social networks have been attacked by the police, and journalists have been among the victims. After an Independent Commission of Inquiry condemned the “excessive force” used by the government to stop the demonstrations, especially the liberal use of tear gas, the government expressed dismay and promised reforms. Nevertheless, in December four journalists, two of them reporters for The New York Times, were attacked.
Syria stands as the most dangerous and difficult place in the region for journalists to work, so much so that since the uprising began last March the job of reporting to fellow Syrians and the outside world has fallen almost entirely on “netizens.” Journalists in the regular press operate under strict censorship and foreign correspondents rarely get into Syria. If they enter legally, they are well minded by Syrian authorities, and if they enter clandestinely they are likely to be arrested and expelled. Even so, journalists get off easy compared to what happens to Syrians. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges foreign correspondents who do get into the country to take greater care to protect people who help them or submit to interviews. “We know of dozens of people who have been arrested and tortured after giving interviews to foreign media,” says RSF. The exile Syrian National Council asks foreign correspondents to stay out of Syria.
With the foreign press greatly limited and the domestic press muzzled, netizens keep pouring words and pictures into websites, Facebook and Twitter. That’s the fuzzy picture the world gets of the devastating repression in Syria, but it’s no less vivid for coming from untrained reporters operating at great risk. RSF published a list (“almost certainly incomplete”) of 19 internet journalists in prison in Syria in October, and at the end of the year reported that two of them have been released but two more arrested. Tal Al-Mallouhi, a 19-year-old student and blogger, was arrested in December 2009 and held incommunicado for nearly 11 months until her trial in November 2010, was accused of spying for the U.S. In February 2011, she was sentenced to five years in jail and went back to prison in solitary confinement and went on a hunger strike in December 2011.
In spite of the violence of the Syrian repression, no journalist died until November 2011 when Ferzat Jarban was found dead with his eyes gouged out in a town in Homs after he had been arrested while filming a protest. In December, Basil al-Sayed, a 24-year-old who had filmed hundreds of hours of the actions of security forces, was shot and killed. Unidentified gunmen killed Shukri Abu al-Burghul, a radio host and editor of the state-owned daily Al Thawra, at his home in Damascus on December 30, 2011.
Arab Spring shook dictatorships outside the Arab world, especially Iran and China, and both of countries cracked down on the press and the “netizens” with increased harshness. The Committee to Protect Journalists made a painstaking study of journalists in jail and announced in December that Iran was the prime offender with 42 in jail, China ranked third with 27. (Eritrea was number two with 28 journalists in jail and Cuba for once had no journalist behind bars.) RSF reported that China is holding 68 cyber-dissidents. The discrepancy in the numbers may be due to different definitions of who is a journalist. But in any case, the figures are high and the sentences imposed recently in China are unusually severe, running up to 10 years in prison.