Arab Spring frees media, mostly

Pushback by dictators, fragile democracies leave the region press-unfriendly; Israel leads pack, but barely considered "free."

A man looks at a newspaper in Tehran R 390 (photo credit: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
A man looks at a newspaper in Tehran R 390
(photo credit: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
For the first time in eight years, freedom of the global press was not in the decline in 2011 and for that the world can thank protestors who brought down dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the human rights monitor Freedom House said in its annual survey of the media.
Led by dramatic improvements in press freedom in Libya and Tunisia, and with some help from Egypt, Freedom House said its index of global press freedom edged up 0.14 point last year, offsetting declines in most other parts of the world. Libya, which under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule had one of the world’s most suppressed media, was designated “partly free” in 2011. Tunisia, which also enjoyed a huge rise in its score, won the same designation.
At the same time, the Arab Spring protests that unleashed a new era of media freedom also elicited a pushback from the region’s authoritarian regimes still fighting to stay in power. Moreover, the infant democracies the turmoil has created are fragile and have already experienced some reversals, Freedom House President David Kramer said.
“The newly opened media environments in countries like Tunisia and Libya, while still tenuous and far from perfect, are critical for the future of democratic development in the region and must be nurtured and protected,” he said. “Also of great concern are those countries, both in the Middle East and around the world, where authoritarian regimes are now on the defensive, creating an even more perilous situation for journalists.”
In fact, the Arab Spring had the perverse effect of sparking crackdowns on media all around the world, Freedom House said. Fearing their own people might be inspired to revolt, China and many African countries took steps ranging from information blackouts in the state media to sophisticated Internet and text-message filtering.
The percentage of the world’s population enjoying free media declined by half a percentage point last year to its lowest since 1996, when Freedom House began incorporating population data into its survey.
Moreover, the big improvement in press freedom last year did not have a big enough impact to change the status of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as the world’s chilliest place for journalists and bloggers. Even though the average score for MENA countries jumped 2.9% last year after three years of declines, it had the poorest ratings of any of the world’s regions.
Only one MENA-region country, Israel, was rated “free”, but its score of 30 barely enabled it to squeeze into the category. Five countries were designated “partly free” and 13 as “not free.” Those 13 accounted for more than 70% of the region’s population, according to the report, Freedom of the Press 2012: A Global Survey of Media Independence.
Four countries – Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – were testing the bottom of the list, which ranked 197 countries and put North Korea at the bottom.
“Although transnational satellite television and Internet-based information platforms have had a positive impact, the media in much of the region remained constrained by emergency rule, state ownership and editorial directives, harsh blasphemy legislation, and laws against insulting monarchs and public figures,” the report said.
In Bahrain, whose king, Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, is contending with protestors demanding more democracy and an end to discrimination against the Shiite majority, journalists and bloggers have been harassed and arrested. Its press freedom rating dropped 12 points to 84 last year.
Syria’s rating fell five points to 89 in 2011 as it barred foreign journalists from covering the 14-month-old rebellion against the role of President Bashar Assad. Independent media outlets have been forced to close, giving the state media a monopoly, Freedom House said.
Although the Arab Spring is little more than a year old, many of the democratizing governments that have arisen from it have sought to restrict press freedom, the report found. The transitional Libyan regime has liberalized the media environment but hasn’t established institutions that would guarantee it. In Egypt, “many features of the old regime” have survived and the interim military government has reportedly interfered in television news, Freedom House said.
In fact, other rights groups have been much more critical than Freedom House about press freedom in Egypt. Last month, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights asserted that Egyptian media outlets are reluctant to criticize the courts and rarely explore “the most important issues, such as purging the judiciary of corruption.” State media showed the ruling military council the same deference they once showed Mubarak, their report said.
Last year, Egypt tumbled to 166th place in media freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders.
The Palestinian Authority, whose 83 ranking made it “not free,” took a step backwards last month when it began blocking websites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.  PA Attorney-General Ahmed Al-Mughni asserted this week that the websites were blocked for breaking the law and in response to complaints from Palestinians.
Moroccan Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi, who belongs to the newly elected moderate Islamist party, issued the new guidelines for public broadcasters in early April that include mandating the broadcast of the call to prayer five times a day, provoking a fierce debate inside the coalition. The heads of the country’s public television stations have publicly slammed the measure as a threat to their independence.