Wednesday marks the 30th annual World Press Freedom Day, commemorated around the world to raise awareness of the importance of a free press. The theme this year is “Shaping a future of rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.”
One of the most prominent recent cases serving as a reminder of the precarity of press freedom is the detention of American journalist Evan Gershkovich in Russia since March.
Gershkovich’s case is especially poignant. In a letter he sent to his parents last month that was published in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “I want to say that I am not losing hope … I read. I exercise. And I am trying to write. Maybe, finally, I am going to write something good.”
Freedom of press in the Middle East and North Africa
Press freedom violations similar to the detention of Gershkovich are happening all over the world. The Middle East and North Africa is currently one of the most problematic regions in terms of press freedoms, and the outlook is not optimistic.
“Authoritarian and extractive political regimes are more or less common features in the region,” Emre Kızılkaya, chair of the International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee told The Media Line. He noted that various factors related to each country’s history play a significant role in the level of press freedom. “An extensive historical analysis of each country in the region is needed to explain why the Middle East is among the worst regions in the world” in terms of press freedom, he said.
Jonathan Dagher, head of the Middle East desk at Reporters Without Borders, known by its French initials, RSF, told The Media Line that journalists working in the Middle East and North Africa “face significant dangers and difficulties, and the free flow of information remains strongly restricted and controlled by governments, militias, and armed groups.”
Israel is the highest-ranked country in the Middle East and North Africa region in the RSF’s 2023 Press Freedom Index. Its position dropped 11 ranks since last year, placing it at 97 out of 180 countries. Qatar is shortly below Israel at 105. Of the 10 countries that rank lowest on the index, four belong to the region: Saudi Arabia at 170, Bahrain at 171, Syria at 175, and Iran fourth lowest on the list at 177.
Kızılkaya attributed Israel’s higher ranking relative to the region to “a more pluralistic political system with stronger democratic checks and balances, which is now threatened by the [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government.”
As for some of the Middle East and North African countries with the lowest rankings, he noted that the most severe press freedom violations are often observed in countries that have been experiencing instability and conflicts for many years. He cited the civil war in Syria, which has been ongoing since 2011, as an example.
“The freedom of the press has not improved in the Middle East in recent years. In fact, in many countries, from Turkey to Yemen and from Egypt to Iran, it further deteriorated,” he said.
Dagher said that 133 journalists are currently imprisoned in the Middle East and North Africa according to RSF data. Syria has 27 journalists in jail, the most in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia are next, each with 24 imprisoned journalists.
The RSF reports that an additional 59 journalists are being held hostage, 42 of whom are in Syria. Syria also has the highest number of journalists who have gone missing, with a total of 10. An additional five journalists in the Middle East and North Africa region are missing as well.
Dagher said that 11 journalists were killed in the Middle East and North Africa in 2023, an increase from 2022. He attributed the increase partially to the lack of accountability for those who kill and threaten journalists.
The most significant change in press freedom in the region over the past year was Iran’s suppression of women journalists, Dagher said.
“We witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on women journalists since the beginning of the Mahsa Amini protests [against Iran’s violent crackdown on women not wearing a hijab] on Sept. 16,” he said. “With nine women journalists currently in prison, Iran is the fifth biggest jailer of women journalists in the world.”
He noted that North Africa also experienced a serious deterioration of press freedom, with Tunisia dropping 27 places in the Press Freedom Index compared to 2022.
Dagher said that the most significant improvement in the region took place in Qatar, but he noted that more work remains to be done.
“We welcomed a slight improvement in the press freedom situation in Qatar, in the context of the FIFA World Cup, but we note that the situation in the country remains problematic for journalists,” he said.
In the case of Turkey, Kızılkaya said, “Detentions, physical assaults, threats, troll attacks, heavy fines, and strategic lawsuits against public participation have been the preferred tools of Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s government throughout its prolonged reign to quash independent media.”
He added that the Turkish government also made use of a “disinformation law” passed in 2022 for the first time this year, convicting a journalist for a report about the devastating earthquakes in Turkey ahead of the election later this month.
Hiba Barakat, a photojournalist from Aleppo, told The Media Line that similar laws in Syria limit the freedom of the press by making it a potentially criminal act to criticize certain parties or authorities.
“It may be considered defamation or inciting people against certain groups, meaning that freedom of expression here is available, but far from [freedom to write] anything that causes resentment or threatens the opinions of the existing authorities,” she said.
She added that gender discrimination is also present in the Syrian journalism scene, presenting various challenges for women journalists.
On condition of anonymity, a freelance Egyptian journalist told The Media Line that “there is no such thing as freedom of the press in Egypt.” He noted that journalists are afraid to express their opinions freely for fear of potential consequences.
“The situation is tragic. The Egyptian government does not want to hear the opinion of others who disagree with it,” he said.
A female journalist in Iran who also requested to remain anonymous told The Media Line, “There is no free media” in Iran. All journalists in Iran must obtain permission from the country’s Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry in order to start working, she said.
“There are too many red lines,” she said. “People are easily arrested. In state-run newspapers, reporters are easily fired with a change in management.”
She recounted a personal experience of having been fired due to a difference of opinion after six years of working at a newspaper affiliated with the Tehran Municipality.
The Iranian journalist noted that government crackdowns on protests consistently involve mass arrests of journalists. “They mostly accuse you of being in contact with spy services,” she said, citing the recent examples of Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, two female journalists who were arrested in Iran last year for reporting on Mahsa Amini, whose death sparked the Woman, Life, Freedom protests.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Kızılkaya said, “A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” Freedom of the press, he said, “is one of the primary ways to ensure that the citizens are informed. Without this freedom, a country may still have elections, as many in the Middle East do, but it does not mean that it has a functioning democracy.”