Stalled Peace's Victim: Free Press

In Egypt, three journalists have been imprisoned and 70 more face investigation. Jordan's Parliament could soon reinstate amendments imposing severe press restrictions and fines.

In Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Palestinian authorities arrest and harass journalists. In Lebanon, the government limits licenses for broadcast media and censors programming.

Increasingly, these governments - which had allowed more press freedoms than many of their Arab neighbors - are cracking down on the media, forcing the many-colored hues of free discussion to transform into the drab gray of a state-controlled press.

The main culprit, according to observers in the region, is the collapsing peace process with Israel that exposes pro-peace Arab governments to criticism and destabilizes the region.

"Almost everything ends up being related to the peace process or the absence of one," says Tim Sullivan, political science professor at the American University of Cairo. "The Americans have failed to live up to the expectations of the Arab countries in the region. This makes them very vulnerable to criticism that efforts to achieve a final settlement are not working," he says.

The peace process has been stalled for more than a year, with Palestinians demanding Israel withdraw from more West Bank land while Israel calls for greater efforts to combat Muslim militants. Despite a 1979 peace treaty, relations between Egypt and Israel are frosty, and many Jordanians oppose King Hussein's 1994 peace accord with the Jewish state.

Lebanon is still officially at war with Israel, but no peace treaty and Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon leaves the country less stable and more vulnerable to press criticism, analysts say.

Of course, these governments are also attacking the press for other reasons. While officials liberate Egypt's economy under an International Monetary Fund-backed reform plan, they want to grab control of other areas, like the media, political commentators say.

Worsening economic conditions for many Jordanians is another subject that authorities hope to stifle. With Syria's military presence in Lebanon, Lebanese authorities want to prevent journalists from insulting its stronger neighbor.

The crackdown in the region has had clear results. In Egypt, where the press has lampooned officials and attacked the elite's excesses, journalists worry about imprisonment. Already the government has banned the country's largest independent weekly, Al Destour, for printing an Islamic extremist death threat against three Coptic Christian businessmen.

Last month authorities banned presses from operating in the country's tax-free zone, preventing about 58 newspapers and magazines from being printed. "It's clear that they're after the independent press," says Hisham Kassem, publisher of the English-language Cairo Times, which previously used free-zone publishers and now must print in Cyprus. "There's very little I can say but that it's disastrous."

Government officials claim they are just trying to stop increasingly sensationalist reporting on sex, religion, and corruption. After calling Egypt a "society that honors our values," Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif said recently: "We cannot let the yellow papers destroy these values."

IN Jordan, the future of at least a dozen independent, more outspoken weeklies is at risk with Parliament scheduled to decide this summer whether to draft a new press law that could reinstate last May's amendments, which gave authorities broad powers to suspend, fine, and permanently close down newspapers. Weeklies also had to raise their capital base from $21,000 to $423,000. The measures forced all 13 of Jordan's weeklies to close. But after the High Court ruled these amendments unconstitutional in January, the weeklies reopened.

King Hussein, claiming he only wants to protect the public interest - in part by limiting criticism of Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders - is strongly pushing the new law. With this kind of pressure, its passage seems likely. Already, foreign television crews and others have had difficulty operating freely inside Jordan.

"[The king] issued what can easily be called a veiled threat to the judiciary, calling on the government to submit this new law.... When the king says that, it's a very powerful thing," says Joel Campagna, program coordinator, Mideast and North Africa, for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

After arresting outspoken journalists and closing newspapers in the initial months of Mr. Arafat's rule in 1994, the Palestinian authorities have continued to harass journalists through daily contact and questioning. In Lebanon, which enjoyed a completely unregulated press during the 1975 to 1990 civil war, the government banned television stations from broadcasting political programs via satellite in January, and in recent years it has given licenses to only a handful of TV stations.

While journalists, human rights groups, and others have fought these growing attacks on the media, their efforts at best have slowed the movement against a free and unfettered press in the Mideast. With no major breakthrough on the horizon in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, analysts expect this trend to continue.

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