Arab Press on Trial Again

As freedom of the press in the Arab world grows, so do the challenges faced by independent journalists there.

Yesterday, Kuwait passed one of the strongest press freedom laws in the Arab world. Tomorrow, Muhammad al Asadi, editor of the weekly Yemen Observer, goes on trial for charges of blasphemy resulting from the Observer's coverage of the Danish cartoon controversy.

While many Arab governments still wield heavy influence over newspapers and broadcast outlets, the days in which journalists simply served their governments are gone. An independent press has emerged in Lebanon and Iraq. New online media are thriving, especially in the Persian Gulf. But as Al Asadi's trial shows, governments that fear a free press are not resting either.

Al Asadi was detained for 11 days last month after the Observer published the cartoons under a thick black banner in a story about Yemeni protests over the caricatures of the prophet Mohammad that appeared in the Copenhagen daily Jylands Posten. The government revoked the Observer's license to publish. Two weekly tabloids, Rai al-A'am and Al-Hurriya, condemned the cartoons but also lost their licenses, apparently for reproducing the controversial images.

Al Asadi says the Yemeni government objected most to the paper's editorial denouncing the cartoons but also calling for Muslims to stop protesting and accept the apology offered by Jylands Postens.

"That's what really angered the hard-liners," he told Newsweek's Rod Nordland. "Even religious scholars have supported us: it's the intention behind the publication, not just the publication."

Al Asadi was not alone in presenting all sides of the Danish cartoon controversy.

"Should there be a limit to what can be published, particularly with regard to the sanctity of religious, cultural or social beliefs?" asked Abdul Hamid Ahmad, editor of the Gulf News, one of the best English-language news sites in the Arab world. Ahmad, who practices journalism in the United Arab Emirates, didn't face quite the same opposition as Al Asadi -- the UAE is known for its free press. "We encourage and welcome such debate."

If convicted Al Asadi potentially faces life imprisonment. Al Asadi could not have been jailed under a press law passed Monday by Kuwait's parliament. The law prohibits the jailing of journalists without a court ruling and lifts a 35-year ban on licenses for new newspapers, but also forbids the publication of blasphemous comments about Muhammad, according to the Khaleej Times, based in the United Arab Emirates.

Lebanon's Daily Star welcomed Kuwait's law as both "timely and necessary." Kuwait's decision "signals that as the Gulf states' experiment with economic liberalization generates political pressure, leaders will respond not by tightening their grip on the citizens but by taking steps toward allowing greater freedom and democracy," the DS said.

But Eyptian journalists "received a rude reminder" last month that a promise by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to revise Egypt's press law has gone unfulfilled. Al Ahram Weekly reported that a Cairo court sentenced Abdel-Nasser El-Zuhairi, a journalist with the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, and two associates, to one year in jail.The three journalists were convicted of libeling a former cabinet minister in a story that appeared in August 2004.

"My promise is still on," Mubarak told Al Ahram, "yet drafting a comprehensive [press] law that satisfies all parties, necessitates more time for study."

One measure of the obstacles facing Egyptian journalists: Mubarak appoints the editor of Al-Ahram, perhaps the best known newspaper in the Arab world.

By Jefferson Morley |  March 7, 2006; 10:01 AM ET  | Category:  Mideast , Press Freedom
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As an Arab and as a Moroccan, I believe that it is not quite representative to list chaotic Iraq along Lebanon in your entry about the emergence of independent press in the Arab world.

Iraqi press is yet to be judged once there is an ACTUAL government that can offer basic security to its citizens. Who is monitoring this press that you qualify as "independent" as the well established Lebanese press? the US military? Is that your source?

The Iraqi government has already shown its "limits" when it banned Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya from the country. As far as I know, the ban is still valid even today.

From reading your entries about the Arab world, I noticed that there is little coverage (if not nothing) or reporting on a substantial part of the Arab world, namely North Africa.

Morocco's independent press has grown substantially since the 1990s and has faced a lot pressure from yet another pro-western Moroccan government.

Recently, the independent weekly "Tel Quel" has been fined 50,000 euros in a libel suit by a Moroccan court.

Another well respected independent weekly "Le Journal Hebdomadaire" has been fined 350,000 euros for defamation on 16 February by a civil court in Rabat. The newspaper was sued by the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC).

I understand that you might not read Arabic and that the only Arab news you have access to is the one in English. In North Africa, newspapers that publish in foreign languages usually do it in French.

While I appreciate your effort to "reach out" to that region in order to inform your American readers, I think using titles like "Arab world press" etc is misleading when you only have access to a subset of Arab newspapers.

Can't the Washington Post (that often writes about international matter) hire someone who can read French and Arabic to help with your coverage?

Posted by: KZ | March 7, 2006 03:02 PM

Thanks for your comments and info, KZ. Your reporting on the situation in Morocco is especially enlightening.

My take on the Iraq press does not come from the U.S. military. I've never used them as a source for this column. What gives you that impression?

I used independent because of what I read in Azzaman's English language site and in the Iraqi Press Monitor shows that they can be quite critical of the government and the United States. It is true that they are not in the same league as Lebanon and perhaps I should have made that distinction.

You are right that I don't read Arab and that I am only reading a subset of the Arab press. That is why I almost always write about the "English language Arabic media."

I will pass along your suggestion that we get someone who reads Arabic to help. I agree totally.

Posted by: Jefferson Morley | March 7, 2006 06:41 PM

Jefferson, you did not address KZ's point about the banning of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya in Iraq by the US occupation. How in your opinion is this freedom of press? Need I also mention the various suspicious US army attacks on Al-Jazeera journalists, several of whom were killed. I suppose these incidents don't count as attacks on the freedom of the press.

BTW, you said:
"You are right that I don't read Arab"

Arab is an ethnicity, and Arabic is the language.

Posted by: | March 7, 2006 08:13 PM

Im glad you are highlighting the situation of journalists in Yemen. Its been a very bad year, with journalists kidnapped, beaten, jailed, stabbed, wiretapped, threatened with harm to their kids, and so on. There were about 50 violations in 2005 and 2006 is not shaping up much better.

Posted by: Jane | March 7, 2006 10:23 PM

Dear Jefferson, I must question the formative precept of this commentary – the existence of an “Arab Press”, by which such arbitrary partition you imply that there are "Arab-type” problems for journalists as a unique genre of problem distinct from journalists elsewhere.
If there is no rationale from which one can infer a certain press problem has special characteristics that allow it to be differentiated as an “Arab” problem, then there is no rationale for your “Arab” characterization. This is important. In the absence of a fact-based rationale for this distinction, the “Arab” distinction is both an arbitrary and irrelevant fiction. It lends itself to “anti-Arab” stereotyping that is the mind-frame of pathologically anti-Arab prejudiced people.
Your essay focuses on one interference in Yemen, which interference is the generic kind of “content” governmental interference that is widely present in non-Arab countries also. Austria, Germany and Turkey are clear examples of non-Arab countries with “content” government interference of expression, about topics related to historical mass killings. England and France among others have “content-based” interferences with expression that “incites” one thing or another, which extend to “the press”.
The libel matters you mention are irrelevant, as reasonable laws against the libel and slander of individuals are generally accepted as consistent with freedom of expression.
The point being, when the issue of “government interference with expression” is the topic, there is no unique “Arab problem” differentiatable from the problem in the rest of the “journalistic world”. The core government offense is per se "content" restraint, not one kind of content as opposed to another.

Posted by: Timothy L | March 8, 2006 11:24 AM

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