From kidnappings to the arrests, detentions and killings of journalists, 2018 marked another challenging year for media across the Middle East.
From the kidnapping of journalists in Iraq and Syria to the jailing of reporters in Turkey and Iran and the targeted assassination of a Saudi columnist, press freedom groups have once again raised alarms over the dangers journalists reporting in the Middle East and North Africa have faced over the last year.
While the threats are not new, the past 12 months have been marked by a handful of critical events and an uptick in violence, which media rights organisations say have ushered in a heightened awareness of the challenges media workers deal with on a daily basis.
No incident was more shocking than the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic who was killed inside his country’s Istanbul consulate in early October.
Khashoggi’s death “struck a chord” with the international community, said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
A 15-man Saudi team was sent to Turkey to kill the Washington Post columnist, where his murder took seven minutes, a Turkish source told Middle East Eye.
“Journalists, advocates and even international institutions said ‘this is where we draw the line’ and where we need to have an international response to the targeting of journalists worldwide,” Mansour told Middle East Eye.
“They’re hoping the Khashoggi case will be a stepping point to reverse that trend” of targeting journalists, he said, “by teaching accountability … against those who kill journalists worldwide”.
More journalists killed
The past year also saw a marked increase in the number of journalists who were killed around the world as a result of their work, with the figure almost doubling from 2017 to 34.
That increase was largely the result of a jump in deliberate attacks on journalists in Afghanistan, CPJ reported earlier this month.
“It’s not a lot of good news, but we haven’t had a lot of good news for years,” said Mansour.
Two of this year’s three most deadly countries for journalists are located in the Middle East.
While Afghanistan took the sombre top spot, Syria ranked second, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), as 11 journalists were killed there in 2018. Yemen ranked third, with eight journalists slain.
RSF’s overall tally varies from CPJ’s because the group takes into account the deaths of bloggers, citizen journalists and media workers; RSF said at least 80 journalists died worldwide in 2018.
Raed Fares, a Syrian civil society activist and head of Radio Fresh, an independent radio station, was killed in Idlib in November. The independent radio station was founded in 2013, earning Fares the ire of both President Bashar al-Assad’s government and militants.
The death of 24-year-old freelance photographer Ahmad Abu Hussein also sent shock waves across the region after he succumbed to his wounds on 25 April, almost two weeks after he was shot by Israeli forces while covering the ‘Great March of Return’ protest in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Abu Hussein was one of several journalists and media workers to be targeted during the weekly protests in Gaza, which began at the end of March.
“Violence against journalists has reached unprecedented levels this year, and the situation is now critical,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement this month.
“The hatred of journalists that is voiced, and sometimes very openly proclaimed, by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground, and has been reflected in this disturbing increase in violations against journalists,” he said.
Journalists imprisoned, kidnapped
Beyond threats to their lives, journalists across the region faced several other risks over the past year.
RSF said almost 37 percent of journalists imprisoned worldwide (127 of 348) are concentrated in just four countries in the region: Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
And all but one of the 59 journalists kidnapped by non-state actors in 2018 took place in Syria, Yemen or Iraq.
The ability of journalists to report on contentious issues also plummeted in several countries, with Syria ranking in the bottom five countries for news freedom worldwide, according to a RSF index, while Sudan ranked in the bottom 10.
In total, nine MENA countries – Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria – ranked in the bottom 20 globally on the media freedom index.
Egypt and Turkey also remained among the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, a black mark they have maintained for several years, said Mansour.
For years, press freedom groups have raised alarms about the situation in Egypt, where a 2011 uprising that unseated Hosni Mubarak, and then the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in 2012 and his ouster by the military a year later, have led to a crackdown on the media.
The Egyptian authorities have also adopted one of US President Donald Trump’s favourite accusations – “fake news” – to detain and arrest journalists.
“In 2015, it was mainly Egypt and Ethiopia holding journalists worldwide on disseminating fake news charges,” Mansour told MEE.
Among those arrested was photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, who was awarded the UN culture agency’s World Press Freedom Prize in April.
Even though he was detained in 2013, Shawkan was given a five-year sentence in September for being involved in a “terrorist group”. The CPJ said that for time already served, he will be released within six months.
Middle East Eye reported in March that shortly before the most recent Egyptian presidential election, which saw Abdel Fatah el-Sisi win with 98 percent of the vote, journalists on the ground talked about operating within a culture of fear.
A number of journalists told MEE they have been forced to be selective about the topics they cover, in an attempt to protect themselves and their sources.
Egypt has banned more than 500 websites, including dozens belonging to news outlets and human rights organisations including independent news source Mada Masr and Human Rights Watch.
According to Amy Sanders, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin who specialises in media law and the Middle East, more world leaders are viewing “a watchdog press as a threat to their power and control over their countries”.
“From Donald Trump in the US to Erdogan in Turkey and the monarchs of the Gulf, political leaders are criticising and cracking down on freedom of expression when it doesn’t align with their views,” she told Middle East Eye in an email.
In Turkey, an attempted coup in 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led to a widespread crackdown on the media.
There are 169 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested under a state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt, the P24 press freedom group said.
“As of 14 December 2018 at least 169 journalists and media workers are in prison in Turkey, either in pre-trial detention, or serving a sentence,” the group said.
Among those arrested in Turkey are staff from the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, which has been fiercely critical of Erdogan and has run front-page stories that have angered the Turkish head of state.
Turkey has used anti-state charges to “ban legitimate journalism work”, said Mansour. But it isn’t alone.
When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de-facto ruler, began a purported anti-corruption drive in November 2017, he detained two prominent media moguls – Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns Rotana media company and has a stake in News Corporation, and Waleed al-Ibrahim, who owns MBC and Dubai-based Al Arabiya.
While both were released in January, Talal had to agree to an unspecified financial settlement with the kingdom before he was freed, while Ibrahim agreed to give 60 percent ownership of MBC to Saudi Arabia.
Speaking to Al Jazeera last year, Middle East Eye chief editor David Hearst said the Saudis are “very media minded, and they think, in a very old-fashioned way, that the media can be bought”.
“That’s the classic Arab state way of thinking about the media. They don’t think that the Arab world – and they’ve said so – is ready for free speech and they want to control it,” he said.
Misinformation has also been used to discredit political rivals in the region, as seen during the diplomatic dispute between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, said Sanders, who previously worked as a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar.
“Hackers posted inflammatory and false statements attributed to Qatar’s emir on the country’s official news agency site, and it set off an international incident,” she said, referring to the start of the diplomatic spat last year.
“Since then, blatantly false stories have been published in major Middle East media outlets throughout Egypt, Saudi [Arabia] and the [United Arab Emirates] about conditions and life in Qatar as a means of persuading Gulf nationals to maintain loyalty to a particular side of the dispute.”
Some good news
However, not all the news has been bleak.
For the first time in several years, there were no reported deaths of members of the media in Iraq in 2018, RSF said.
That marks the first year no journalists were killed in Iraq since 2012, Mansour said.
Still, he stressed that “there are still many cases of journalists who have gone missing and have been kidnapped” by non-state actors, such as the Islamic State (IS) group.
“To this day we don’t know anything about them,” he said.
Another bright spot has been the release of several jailed journalists, particularly in Egypt.
“Half of the journalists who were jailed in Egypt in 2017 were released,” Mansour said, explaining that some had already served their jail time, while others were granted early release.
“Ten journalists that we know of and reported on in 2018 alone have been released,” he said.
“This is why we celebrate the small victories. Even if Egypt continues to be one of world’s largest jailers of journalists, at least many of those who were jailed are free today.”