Arab press grows bolder, but blocks remain

This week, Al Jazeera aired a controversial program about torture in Arab jails.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Amid mounting global pressure on Arab governments to democratize, journalists across the region have started boldly speaking out, criticizing their leaders, attacking corruption, and demanding more freedom and transparency.

But even as media outlets embrace calls for press reform, many Arab states continue to attack the press through restrictive laws, imprisonment of journalists, and, allegedly, even murder.

"Journalists who have tried to stake out an independent position from the government very frequently face the wrath of local officials," says Joel Campagna, senior program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. A free press, he argues, is a prerequisite for greater democracy throughout the Arab world.

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Media freedom, however, varies greatly across the region, say analysts.

Egypt, for example, is experiencing a more open, vibrant press, which has dared in recent months to criticize Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the extension of his 24-year rule, and the possible succession of his son. In fact, most subjects seem fair game these days.

"We are free to report on almost anything, except defense," says Hisham Kassem, vice chairman and chief executive officer of the independent daily Al Masry Al Yom.

With a long history of freedom and openness, the Lebanese press, too, has been outspoken in its criticism of the government and its former occupier, Syria, especially since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February and the massive demonstrations that followed.

Other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, which allowed journalists to address such taboo topics as religious militancy, government mismanagement, and terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, have opened their press for short periods but then cracked down.

And in other countries, including Tunisia and Libya, press freedoms actually deteriorated in recent years, analysts say, despite the push for democratic reform.

Speaking out often carries a steep price. Earlier this month, Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, a journalist with the daily Lebanese newspaper An Nahar, was killed by a car bomb in what was widely suspected to be an assassination backed by Syria. Syria denies the allegation.

After Mr. Kassir's death, his columns were reprinted in An Nahar's newspaper and on its website.

"Even if we assume that Syria has convinced the world it is innocent of Rafik Hariri's assassination, the strong popular outcry surrounding the crime has raised the possibility of examining again the other crimes the Baathists [the ruling Syrian party] committed while suppressing Lebanon's public freedoms," reads a reprinted column by Kassir that ran after Hariri's assassination.

Last month, supporters of Egypt's governing party beat and sexually assaulted female journalists in Cairo at antigovernment rallies during a referendum on an amendment to allow multicandidate presidential elections in September.

The attack on women journalists in Cairo last month led to meetings and demonstrations denouncing the government and calling for the resignation of Egypt's interior minister. Meanwhile, Al Masry Al Yom printed photos showing voter fraud during May's referendum about direct presidential elections.

The growth of electronic and broadcast media in the Arab world, like the pioneering satellite television station and website Al Jazeera, has also had a tremendous effect on the region's press. Besides being an important platform for political debate, they disseminate information the population cannot get from the local media.

"We discuss subjects that they [Arab governments] consider taboo," says Ahmed Sheikh, editor in chief of Al Jazeera, the satellite station. "We cover reform, democracy, ... human rights."

Just this Sunday, Mr. Sheikh says, Al Jazeera did a controversial program on torture in Arab jails, focusing mainly on Egypt, where there had been a protest Sunday outside the state security headquarters denouncing the widespread use of torture in the country's prisons.

Still, supporters of more press freedom in the Arab world emphasize that what's really needed for true reform is a complete change of attitude: Arab regimes must welcome the media as a pillar of democracy, instead of rejecting them as an enemy of the state.

"There needs to be a new mentality about the role of the free press in a democratic society," says Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist at Cairo's state-run daily Al Ahram, "and to truly believe that this is the way of good governance."

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