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.
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