CAIRO: While the numbers of journalists killed and imprisoned both fell in 2008, the situation of press freedom generally in the Middle East continued to deteriorate, said representatives of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) during the launch of the New York-based group s annual report in Cairo Tuesday.
The report, titled “Attacks on the Press in 2008 is a global survey of violations of press freedom committed in 2008.
“Just like last year, the report confirms that there has been a deterioration in freedom of expression in the region, Kamal Labidi, CPJ s ME representative told reporters.
Labidi said that the previous US administration was “one of the worst enemies of press freedom, a point underlined in the report.
“While imprisonments by the United States are proportionately small in the worldwide tally, they have a disproportionate impact around the world, the report s introduction reads.
“US actions and rhetoric suggested that jailing reporters on vague security accusations was an acceptable practice. We saw countries around the world opportunistically and cynically embrace the Bush administration s war on terror rhetoric to justify repressive policies.
Satellite broadcasting forms the subject of the introduction to the section on countries in the MENA region, an acknowledgement of the fact that “the numbers of satellite broadcasters has grown into the hundreds, and viewership has jumped into the tens of millions as satellite access has become less costly.
The report is critical of the “strong, collective message sent to satellite channels in February last year when 20 out of 22 members of the Arab League approved the “Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region.
According to CPJ, the document “clearly targets independent and privately owned stations that have been airing criticism of Arab governments.
CPJ cites “popular frustration with Arab regimes as the motivation for restricting satellite television.
The biggest decline in satellite broadcasting freedom in 2008 occurred in Egypt, the report says, a country which it describes as “bellwether for the direction of press freedom in the region.
Two television stations were raided last year and, on Feb. 23, 2008 state security officers prevented the Mehwar channel from broadcasting a live program on the counter-terrorism bill currently before parliament only two hours before it was due to air.
The report also details the “astonishing wave of lawsuits, criminal complaints and summons filed against Egyptian writers, editors and bloggers in 2008, most of which were brought by members of the ruling National Democratic Party.
Cases mentioned in the report include that of four editors charged with “publishing false information likely to disturb public order after they ran articles critical of President Mubarak and his top aides.
The prison sentence originally handed down to the four editors – Ibrahim Eissa, Wael El-Ibrashy, Adel Hammouda and Abdel Halim Qandil – was reduced to a fine on appeal earlier this month.
One reporter asked during the press conference why the CPJ report did not include a reference to the throwing of a shoe at former US president George Bush by an Iraqi journalist, Montazar Al-Zaidi.
“Throwing a shoe has nothing to do with journalism – it was a personal action, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ s program coordinator for the MENA region responded.
Abdel Dayem also announced that CPJ is currently in the process of researching a report on bloggers in the MENA region, which he hopes will be launched in the summer.
Speaking after the press conference Labidi told Daily News Egypt that violations of press freedom occur because of “the failure of the authorities to seriously change the law, bringing it in conformity with international standards.
“While the four editors weren t imprisoned they are still considered violators of the law, and Egyptian law is still hovering over their heads. Any journalist can be thrown in jail – courts are used to settle scores.