CAIRO: Across the Middle East, journalists who challenge the government are threatened by the state, prosecuted and imprisoned, an international press watchdog said Monday.
In a survey, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the failure of US President George W. Bush to push through democratic reform in the Arab world had had a negative impact on press freedom in the Arab world.
Political reform and press freedom advocates whose expectations may have been raised by the Bush administration ran into regional realities, the group said in an annual report on press freedom worldwide that was released simultaneously in New York and regional centers such as Egypt.
The unraveling of the Bush strategy in Iraq has consumed Washington s attention and made the United States less bullish in advocating real change throughout the region, the report said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said that Iraq remained the most dangerous reporting assignment in the world for the fourth consecutive year. No fewer than 32 journalists and 15 media support staffers were killed in 2006, it reported.
The report noted that US troops had detained and harassed Iraqi journalists. It specifically mentioned the case of the AP photographer Bilal Hussein who was detained by US forces on April 12 in Ramadi and has been held without charge ever since for imperative reasons of security. The committee accused the Iraqi government of continuing the trend of its predecessors by closing down broadcasting outlets on the vague charge that they were engaged in incitement.
Looking at the Middle East overall, the report said: Scores of journalists who challenged the political order were threatened by government agents, hauled before the courts, thrown in prisons or censored in media crackdowns.
With few checks on their powers, governments across the region preyed on critical journalists, using draconian press laws or outright intimidation, it said.
In Egypt, the report noted that journalists have been facing imprisonment for critical writing, despite promises of reform by President Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian journalists still spoke out, but were confronted by arrests, lawsuits and state-sponsored assaults, it wrote. The sentence for a conviction of publishing false information and insulting state institutions is as high as five years imprisonment.
The government, like others in the region, maintained its tight hold on the media ownership, it said.
On Sunday, the would-be publishers of an independent newspaper in Egypt protested that the government had balked at licensing their paper and accused it of stifling freedom of expression.
We are only trying to produce accurate media, said Mohammed Seyed Said, a well-known Egyptian intellectual who would have edited the paper, which was to be called Al Badeel – alternative in Arabic.
In Iran, the report noted that the government had closed some 100 critical publications since 2000. The closures forced journalists to switch to Internet blogs, which have soared in popularity. In 2004, 20 bloggers were detained.
In Israel and the Palestinian territories, the committee reported Palestinian journalists claims of being targeted by Israeli forces on several occasions, but it did not give specifics.
Reporters also complained of intimidation and harassment by Palestinian authorities, political factions and militia, the report said.
Press freedom in Libya, Tunisia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates is either non-existent or heavily constrained, while Syria pursues a relentless crackdown on dissidents that includes arrests, the report said.
The report also noted an erosion of press freedom in Morocco, which once enjoyed a robust independent press, and infringements of press liberty in Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen.