So far, the Arab revolutions have not led to increased press freedom. Although there were moments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya after the old governing order fell when it seemed as if a bright new day was dawning for the media, that didn’t last. In each country the new leaders – often recycled from the previous government - continued to control the press, both print and electronic.
According to the Press Freedom Index 2011-12 from Reporters without Borders, Tunisia raised its ranking by 30 points because of more media outlets, but the new regime seems to want to hold on to television as much as the old. This is not surprising - often governments that are willing to concede some freedom to print media insist on keeping television in harness.
In Libya too, new electronic and print outlets have been established which is why it rose slightly in the ranking. However, it’s not at all clear that Libya can escape a long period of civil turbulence, something that never helps the free movement of journalists or gives them immunity from censorship without which press freedom is limited.
Tunisia and Libya are the only Arab Spring countries that improved their press freedom ratings. Egypt fell by 40 points because the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has followed former President Hosni Mubarak’s techniques of harassing the press in multiple ways.
The worst examples
The worst examples are Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. In each, governments have ferociously clamped down on media and treated journalists as enemies. The three countries rank in the 170s out of the world total of 179 countries. Syria with the most severe continuing revolution has the worst record of repressing local journalists and targeting the foreign press as well as limiting Internet access.
In the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates dropped 25 points on the Index. Despite the absence of political opposition, the government clamped down hard on several bloggers, the so-called UAE 5, for unspecified activities. They were imprisoned for most of the year and then pardoned for National Day, December 2, the 40th anniversary of the country’s founding.
Many websites are permanently not available in the UAE, and every journalist becomes an expert in self-censorship. More than that, even letters to the editor are censored. When I wrote a letter to one of the English language daily newspapers reflecting on a column about Arabs looking to become citizens of the UAE, I wrote very carefully to avoid anything that anyone might object to. It wasn’t enough – my concluding sentence was cut, reducing some of the impact.
Going forward, in trying to predict the future of media freedom in the Arab world, I think we have to recognise that the right to information is not universally acknowledged. Societies are traditionally paternalistic. In the family, the father is the unchallenged ruler. In the broader sphere, the head of government or the hereditary ruler – sometimes the same person – is in charge.
It takes many years – as seen in the examples of Mubarak and Gaddafi – for serious opposition to the ruler to crystalise. Support for the ruler includes belief in father knows best. The leader will tell us what we need to know when we need to know it.
Regardless of revolutions, it’s hard to find media freedom in the Arab world because cultural restrictions that define relations within a family and a tribe relate to a general agreement to keep speech and behavior within - what seem to some outsiders - narrow limits.
For example, extreme sensitivity to insults and the readiness to take critical comments or questions as insults guarantee that most people are very careful about what they say. It’s easier to say nothing or not much than to risk a potential insult and repercussions
The questions that a reporter asks during an interview may easily be seen as insulting – especially because social rank plays such a major role in the Arab world. The journalist – whose social status is probably lower than that of the interviewee and both parties are aware of that – risks being reported by the person he’s questioning to the editor or higher authority for inappropriate behavior.
During the worst moments of the financial crisis in Dubai, the ruler of the emirate and the heads of the crown jewel companies of the emirate, were unavailable to answer questions or brief reporters, local or foreign. That led to a number of seriously negative stories by foreign journalists. The local journalists were mainly silent as a result of direct orders or self-censorship.
Many of the stories that appeared in British and American media were exaggerated or simply wrong about some of the alleged facts presented. When journalists aren’t provided access to key sources and correct information, they will cobble together stories as best they can. Not having the story isn’t an option if the story is considered important by the commissioning editor or producer.
It would be nice to think that some of Dubai’s leaders and their peers in Abu Dhabi learned about the need for transparency from that experience. Certainly, some did, but it’s hard to see clear evidence that media is become more free to ask and investigate. We still don’t know who was responsible for the enormous outlays on construction projects or who calculated that the loans to finance the projects could be repaid from income. The questions remain, but who is allowed to ask them? Who is ready to answer?
Is optimism naive?
Optimists will agree that press freedom is increasing in the Arab world if only through media free zones where the organizations that locate there are close to 100 percent independent of local government restrictions. It’s no coincidence that CNN and Sky News Arabia set up their studios at twofour54, the Abu Dhabi media zone, while earlier Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya as well as Reuters set up their studios and offices at Dubai Media City.
However, it’s worth recalling that several years ago, Dubai Media City closed GEO and ARY One, both Pakistani satellite TV stations, at the request of the Pakistani government. The closure didn’t last long, but it happened and could happen again.
No one can be certain that the progress of media in the next few years will lead to more press freedom in the Arab world. I hope it will, but that is optimistic, more than obvious.
Dr. Alma Kadragic has had a long career in media including being a television journalist in the US and Eastern Europe, manager of a PR agency in Eastern Europe and she has worked in academia. She has lived in the UAE for seven years and is currently director of the new Master of Media and Communications and Master of International Studies programs at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.
She lectures internationally on media and press freedom issues and is the founding editor of Middle East Media Educator, an annual journal.
Dr Kadragic kindly donated her fee for this article to the DCMF's Emergency Assistance efforts.