The number of imprisoned journalists worldwide reached a record high in 2021. As one of the more dangerous regions, the Arab world poses abundant threats for journalists as an area replete with dictatorships, corruption, legal constraints, punitive measures, conflicts, unrest, and lack of infrastructural, professional, and educational resources. The Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2021 ranked some Arab countries among the worst in terms of press freedom indicators; with Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen in the bottom ten.
A decade after the Arab Spring, the mediated landscape of 2021 closely mirrors the realities in Arab politics. The detours in democratization in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), albeit in different forms and with varying paces and degrees, were accompanied by increased stifling of freedoms, including those of expression and the press. One of the manifestations of this new phase include digital authoritarianism, which has been on the rise, as authoritarian governments heighten their crackdowns on their opponents both at home and in the diaspora as well as online and offline. These complex phenomena escalated significantly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has given Arab states the pretext of protecting their societies. These countries provide strikingly clear examples of the grave effects of conflict on the lived realities of journalists, who are continuously paying a high price for seeking to empower and inform the public.
Persistent Conflicts and Recent Backlashes
The countries that have been witnessing serious ongoing conflicts in the Arab region, unsurprisingly, have witnessed the highest numbers of fatalities, imprisonments, and other threats for journalists, creating the most unsafe environments to practice journalism in 2021. According to RSF, they include Syria, which has been suffering from a brutal civil war and a devastating humanitarian crisis since 2011; Libya, which is witnessing an unsettling and extended factional strife; Yemen, which has been plagued by the harsh consequences of war and conflict, significantly worsening its existing socioeconomic, humanitarian, and infrastructural challenges; and Iraq, whose internal violence and deep divisions have been increasingly threatening freedom of speech.
The countries that have been witnessing serious ongoing conflicts in the Arab region, unsurprisingly, have witnessed the highest numbers of fatalities, imprisonments, and other threats for journalists, creating the most unsafe environments to practice journalism in 2021.
Tunisia, which has long been perceived as the sole survivor of the tumultuous waves of the Arab Spring, experienced a democratic setback on July 25, 2021, when President Kais Saied staged a coup to consolidate power. His measures spilled over into the realm of journalism, challenging Tunisian journalists who were covering the events and commenting on them for national and international media. The negative consequences ranged from state harassment of both Tunisian and foreign journalists, to some instances of jailing journalists and shutting down media organizations’ offices, including the office of Al Jazeera. The fact that many of these journalists and bloggers faced military trials, along with civilian activists and opponents, prompted groups such as the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists to issue statements warning against these trials and arrests and expressing fear that such press freedom reversals could return Tunisia to the autocratic era of former President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali.
Sudan’s military coup, which took place on October 25, 2021, saw the army assuming full control of the country, dissolving and suspending the transitional government, and detaining the civilian prime minister, thus triggering massive protests and a harsh governmental crackdown. This led to dire consequences for Sudanese journalists, who were covering political developments, including wide-scale demonstrations. The Sudanese government’s assault on freedom of the press included detaining them without just cause or fair trials, suspending social media platforms, and even shutting down the internet. This led to condemnations by groups such as the Sudanese Journalists Network and Reporters Without Borders, which denounced the government’s placement of “press freedom under siege” after the coup. Sudanese journalists continued to push back against various forms of regime intimidation and harassment that targeted both national and international reporters, including detaining Al Jazeera’s bureau chief. The massive media repression campaign also encompassed suspending radio broadcasts of the BBC and Monte Carlo stations as well as several Sudanese television stations and newspapers.
Role Reversal in Cyberspace: From Liberation to Repression
In stark contrast to the heightened optimism that accompanied the Arab Spring uprisings, the perceived role of cyberactivism in enabling long-awaited transitions now faces an increasingly dangerous and risky cyberspace. As Arab regimes continue to build their own digital and technical capacities, they are not just narrowing the digital divide between themselves and their opponents; rather, they are sharpening their tools to outsmart them in this cyber-based tug-of-war. The governments intend to reverse the digital balance of power, which was in favor of the young activists, journalists, and bloggers a decade ago.
The governments intend to reverse the digital balance of power, which was in favor of the young activists, journalists, and bloggers a decade ago.
Using a plethora of techniques, including blocking, hacking, sabotaging, and trolling, among others, authoritarian Arab regimes are constantly striving to restrict their opponents’ activities. This new phase of digital authoritarianism is increasingly more prevalent and more effective in the oil-rich Gulf countries that have the financial resources, technological savviness, and high internet penetration rates to enable them to go after their opponents and to curb online activism. For example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates purchased advanced spyware including Pegasus—a product of the infamous Israeli company, NSO Group—to keep a close eye on their opponents and critics, locally as well as globally. Such actions put many of the latter at high risk of invasion of privacy, compromised personal security, and, ultimately, exposed journalists to grave consequences such as arrest or even killing to silence their voices once and for all, as the infamous and brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi illustrated.
This means that many of the outspoken regime critics, including those in the diaspora who exercise political resistance through digitally based activities (such as blogging and tweeting), are no longer safe. One striking case, among many, is that of Omar Abdulaziz, the well-known Saudi blogger and government critic who sued the NSO Group for manufacturing the spyware that was used by Saudi authorities to hack his phone.
These digitally based techniques of oppression are coupled with restrictive punitive measures made possible by judicial systems that are far from independent, leading to more cases of journalists’ imprisonment, often under false charges and unjust accusations related to their routine professional online activities. Bloggers and citizen journalists are no exception. Recent examples from Egypt, which was ranked as the third worst jailer of journalists worldwide in 2021, are the five-year sentence on December 20, 2021 of prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and the four-year sentence of the blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim and his lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, under the false charges of spreading fake news. The three have been held in pretrial detention since September 2019.
There is also the case of award-winning Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2021 after an unfair trial—during which he was charged falsely of rape and espionage—for daring to criticize some government policies and public figures in a tweet. It is worth noting that Radi had been the target of systematic governmental online smear campaigns and spyware intrusions of his phone before his arrest.
The Magnifying Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Although the pandemic did not cause any of the previously discussed dangers and threats that Arab journalists confront, its lingering effects and far-reaching implications certainly exacerbated and magnified their impacts. For example, exploiting state-crafted laws like so-called “cybercrime laws” that came to be known as the “fake news laws,” in addition to already existing “counterterrorism laws,” opened the door in a number of Arab countries to imprison journalists under the guise of fighting misinformation and curbing disinformation during the pandemic. The laws, most of which are deliberately phrased in vague and ambiguous language, left room for different interpretations of their do’s and don’ts. Therefore, they served as ideal tools in the hands of repressive Arab regimes when cracking down on their opponents, including journalists, who dared to expose wrongdoings and to challenge official policies on a number of issues. This included the governments’ handling—or mishandling—of the COVID-19 pandemic and the facts and figures about its related hospitalizations, infections, and deaths. The crackdown was clearly evident in the numerous incidents of jailing journalists who dared to contradict the official COVID-19 narrative in a number of countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and others. Even foreign correspondents who crossed the red line in their coronavirus coverage faced consequences, such as confiscation of journalistic licenses and, in some cases, deportation.
Negative effects of the pandemic were exemplified by Arab regimes’ implementation of advanced surveillance and contact-tracing applications, under the mantle of fighting the pandemic and protecting public health.
Other negative effects of the pandemic were exemplified by Arab regimes’ implementation of advanced surveillance and contact-tracing applications, under the mantle of fighting the pandemic and protecting public health. In fact, however, many of these new tools were effectively used to trace dissidents, opponents, and journalists, thus creating an increasingly more dangerous political environment, a more stifled public sphere both offline and online, and a “privacy nightmare.” This led groups such as Freedom House to sound the alarm about the shrinking margin of internet freedom in the MENA region during the pandemic, not just for political activists and dissidents but also for journalists, citizen journalists, and everyday netizens, causing them to be “exposed and exploited” in the most dangerous ways.
Here, again, it was the more affluent Gulf countries that sharpened their digital tools and put them to use more effectively and quickly than others, drawing on their financial and sophisticated technological resources. In fact, Amnesty International classified the Bahraini app “BeAware Bahrain” and the Kuwaiti app “Shlonik” among the most dangerous mass surveillance tools internationally, in terms of posing serious threats to privacy.
Moreover, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic led more media organizations to either shut down completely or to at least downsize, resulting in more journalists losing their jobs. This is especially true in the case of print media in many parts of the Arab world—such as al-Hayat, al-Arab, and The Daily Star—which suffered from dire economic consequences due to the dwindling revenue from advertisements, coupled with increased governmental restrictions on published content. The main victims of such measures are mostly the freelance journalists—who work part time and have no long-term contracts and, therefore, lack job security—and women journalists, who are always the hardest to hire and the easiest to fire in many parts of the world, including the Arab region. Indeed, the gender-specific effects of the pandemic, which certainly widened the gender gap, in general, and the gender digital gap, in particular, caused direr consequences for women. Arab women journalists are no exception, unfortunately.
Ongoing Resistance against All Odds…
Despite the political, economic, and legal challenges facing Arab journalists, or possibly because of them, the strong will and determination of many to continue their resistance to all forms of governmental repression and authoritarianism did not weaken or fade away. There are still bright examples who are determined, more than ever, to continue pushing the envelope of freedom of the press. The previously mentioned journalists and bloggers who faced unfair trials and were handed lengthy sentences for speaking truth to power are living proof, and they are just a few among many.
The strong will and determination of many to continue their resistance to all forms of governmental repression and authoritarianism did not weaken or fade away.
Some of the effective strategies to which Arab journalists are currently resorting are to appeal to international public opinion, augmenting their messages through their networks of families, friends, and allies—even when they are behind bars. They also seek solidarity and support from human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as organizations that defend journalists, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and RSF.
One good example of Arab journalists’ systematic efforts to reach out to the international community is participating in events like “The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.” They also amplify grievances through international organizations such as UNESCO and others, as well as join efforts to protect journalists under human rights and international humanitarian law. Another good example is joining well-orchestrated digitally based initiatives, such as the Twitter campaign #JournalismIsNotACrime, and using the hashtag in English, Arabic, and other languages to sound the alarm against the many abuses they confront.
However, their most important resistance mechanism has been, and will always be, the actual continuation of their efforts to seek, reveal, and share the truth with both domestic and global audiences through mainstream and new media, offline and online, despite all government efforts to stop and silence them. The outcomes of such contestations between truth-seekers and repressive regimes will always be determined by a unique amalgamation of factors, including the changing political dynamics and new socioeconomic realities in an increasingly volatile and tumultuous region.