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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Why is the Gulf scared of free press? 


On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, Doha News asks what’s holding back progress in the Gulf and the wider Arab region.

Hands up if you think it’s your basic right to access reliable news and information about the world around you?

According to recent data published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), those of us living in the Gulf can put our hands down, as journalism is still measurably and heavily restricted across the region.

RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which measures access to information and obstacles to news coverage, ranks Kuwait as the best place for press freedom in the Gulf, occupying 105th place out of 179 countries across the world. 

Qatar lags behind at 128th place – although that’s still the second lowest rate of press oppression in the Gulf. 

In the wider MENA area, Tunisia scores best at 73rd place. Lebanon closely follows at 107, with Jordan at 109.

The RSF index classes Saudi Arabia as the most repressive Gulf state when it comes to media freedom, and among the worst offenders worldwide – just nine points behind North Korea. 

In an interview with Doha News, veteran Qatari journalist Jaber Al Harami spoke about the reality of journalism and media in the Arabian Gulf. He praised the growing amount of space for press freedom in Qatar.

“Recently, the state [of Qatar] has witnessed an increase in the freedom margin, and in the coming period even more space is expected to be open for discussions about local issues and controversial societal topics that were previously silenced in the media,” says Al Harami.

Read also: OPINION: With major events on the horizon, media freedom will be essential for Qatar

“Compared to neighbouring countries, Qatar is special in respecting freedom of speech, as no recent case in this regard has been criminalised or led to the arrest or prosecution of journalists in the state.”

“However, Qatar still restricts press freedom in various ways,” Al Harmi added.

This is a sentiment shared by Senior Researcher at Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Justin Shilad.

“There have been arrests of journalists in the past, such as those covering labour conditions in 2016 and also in 2015, and there is vaguely worded legislation making journalists and others working in media vulnerable to prosecution for ‘false news’ or ‘cybercrimes’, Shilad told Doha News. 

“While Qatar may not have the number of imprisoned journalists that we see in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or other neighbouring countries, the numbers (or lack thereof) don’t tell the whole story. The threat of detention or imprisonment for publishing the wrong thing still exists in Qatar, as it does throughout the region,” he added.

A particularly Arab problem?

In the Middle East, journalists are extremely vulnerable. Not only do they risk their lives covering war, terrorism, protests and political unrest, they must contend with the threat of tyrannical authorities who want to silence them. 

“There is excessive sensitivity towards what is written, said, or published by an Arab journalist in an Arabic news outlet. However, this sensitivity disappears completely when the same information – even if it’s incorrect – is published by foreign media,” Al Harami says.

“We see authorities in many cases tolerate criticism from foreign media, but they would be offended if the same things were said by a local journalist or news outlet. 

“A journalist with a western name can say whatever they want and they will also be welcomed in the country and can meet state actors. On the other side, a local or Arab journalist does not enjoy the same privilege. The latter could get arrested or prosecuted, and he could be exposed to danger, threats and interrogations. 

“Arab authorities believe that Arab news has more influence on locals than foreign media, because it conveys the same culture, language and values.”

Al Harami also believes that state authorities aim to ‘beautify’ the often dire situation in the Arab region by sweeping their wrongdoings under the carpet. Censoring local media and preventing news outlets from doing their work ethically are ways to do this.

“This is because Arab governments believe that their people cannot look into foreign media, or learn what American and Western media says about the Arab world,” he says. 

“In reality, this is not true, because people around the world today have access to different sources of international media. Even a kid can view foreign sites and learn things about his society that are never said or portrayed in local media.”

Al Harami warns that Arab governments are driving their citizens to learn about their surroundings from foreign media instead of building reliable, trusted, national news outlets. 

“This destroys the trust between people and the government eventually. So, even if government authorities in the future decide to share information and reveal real news, people won’t trust what they say,” he adds.

The way forward for Arab regimes, according to Al Harami, is to incorporate higher education, social media and foreign press into a healthier news landscape. A more modern and two-way flow of information will create more understanding between Arab regimes and public opinion.

“Advanced education and foreign universities played a role in exposing this generation to international and multicultural media and societies. These should be considered while making decisions, amending laws and regulations, and granting press freedom,” he says.

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