Watchdog: Middle East oppresses journalists

Egypt is among the world’s worst oppressors of internet journalists, charged a report released yesterday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog. The report also said that media coverage of human rights issues in the the Middle East and North Africa is increasing, yet still faces strong challenges from repressive governments.

In 2009, according to the report, 70 journalists were killed and more than 136 were imprisoned, with Iran and China cited as the worst offenders. The numbers given are the highest since the CPJ began issuing its annual report 30 years ago.

"It’s a pretty grim picture," CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said at a press conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Iran was highlighted as a particularly egregious offender, with 23 journalists imprisoned in the wake of the unrest following the June 2009 presidential elections. Other countries in the region also fared badly. In Egypt, according to the report, "[a]uthorities followed familiar tactics to control news media, pursuing politicized court cases, imposing fines, using regulatory tools, and harassing journalists."

Among the Egyptian government’s violations, according to the CPJ, were fines imposed on newspapers for ignoring a ban on covering the trial of businessman Hisham Talaat Mostapha, who was accused of murdering Lebanese singer Suzanne Tanim. The report also mentioned the prosecution of newspaper editors who raised questions about President Mubarak’s health.

But Egypt’s strongest efforts at repression were directed against online media. "[A]uthorities moved aggressively to monitor and control online activity," said the report. According to the CPJ, the Egyptian government "relies on Web-specific regulators such as the Directorate for Computer and Internet Crimes" to monitor and persecute web-based journalists.

One Egyptian blogger told the CPJ that the government has its own "internet police", ostensibly to protect against online fraud and theft, but in reality responsible for monitoring political bloggers.

As of early December, when the CPJ conducted its research, at least three online journalists were in Egyptian jails. In mid-January around 30 bloggers and activists were arrested on their way to Naga Hammadi in Upper Egypt, where they hoped to show solidarity with the families of Coptic Christians killed in a sectarian shooting on 6 January.

While virtually every country in the Middle East and North Africa was criticized for repressing journalists, the CPJ report saw glimmers of hope in the increasing coverage of human rights abuses, a trend which the report says started with reporting on human rights abuses during the first Palestinian Intifada, which was then brought back and continued by journalists in their home countries.

Increasing use of the internet has helped to open debate in the Middle East and North Africa on human rights issues. “This is a very different world from in the ’90s and it’s a world in which governments can no longer completely control the message,” the CPJ report quoted Lawrence Pintak, a journalism professor who designed a study on media in the Arab world. “They can crack down on individual news organizations, they can jail individual reporters, they can harass individual editors, but they can’t stop the flow of information.”

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