The Middle East is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous regions to cover for journalists, while freedom of the press is widely curtailed and often violated in many places.
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) found that the media has been totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic when people are most desperate for information.
Working as a journalist in this region carries with it many risks and abuses, in an era of newly adopted legislation on cybercrime in some places, and restrictions on freedoms in others.
Journalists are subject to being arrested, attacked, banned from working, and subjected to other forms of judicial harassment by governments and their security and intelligence services only because they seek to tell the truth.
Tunisia, the highest-ranked Middle Eastern country, dropped one spot from last year’s World Press Freedom Index ranking, to 73. Tunisia’s gains during the Arab Spring in 2011 were lost in 2019 and the overall climate for the media and journalists there has gotten worse. Far-right politicians no longer hesitate to openly target journalists and press freedom defenders, according to RSF.
Israel, which jumped up two spots to 82, has an open and direct media and is considered one of the freest in the Middle East. But, according to the index, journalists still face aggressive treatment from government officials. Another issue facing journalists in Israel is “military censorship.”
The RFS report finds that this self-censorship has resulted in little or no coverage of the reality of life in the Palestinian territories.
Working in the Palestinian territories is not easy for me; in the end, I’m Jewish and an Israeli, which makes my work there difficult
Ohad Hemo, a veteran reporter in Israel, has worked in journalism for seventeen years and specializes in covering Palestinian affairs for Israel’s Channel 12 News. Hemo says he is trying to change the type of coverage Israeli reporters do of the West Bank and Gaza. He told The Media Line that in his 17 years of reporting, he has not had to curtail his coverage of Palestinians for Israeli media while reporting from Gaza and the West Bank and bring Palestinians lives to Israelis.
“Frankly, I do not see difficulties or challenges during my coverage locally in Israel. I have never encountered censors telling me what to say or not say,” he said.
Hemo, who speaks fluent Arabic with the Palestinian dialect of the residents of Gaza, says that he learned the language during his frequent visits to the coastal strip, which he first entered in 2004, and says that he has friends – journalists and photographers – whom he visited for two weeks, once or twice.
He says there is no dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and that perhaps his coverage “contributes to converging views and helps create a dialogue between them.”
“The Israeli journalist and Palestinian workers working in Israel are the last bridge between the two peoples,” he said.
Hemo says Palestinians accuse the Israeli authorities of not treating Palestinian journalists fairly. He does not think he should be the scapegoat for that.
In addition, he says: “Working in the Palestinian territories is not easy for me; in the end, I’m Jewish and an Israeli, which makes my work there difficult.”
Palestine moved up five spots to 132, a slight improvement over last year. Meanwhile, continued tension between Israelis and Palestinians makes covering the conflict dangerous.
“I was covering clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, the soldier was pointing the gun at my face, I was taught in school that if I held up my mic and I said I’m a journalist, then I’m protected. But he shot me straight in my leg,” veteran Palestinian journalist Faten Elwan told The Media Line.
She says she wanted to be a journalist so she could tell all the different stories of the Palestinian people.
“I always wanted to tell the story of the people, the joy and the griefs as well. The stories about the killing and the blood, but I also wanted to tell the stories of those who have dreams. Regardless of all the pain we have here, we still have joy and dreams,” Elwan said.
She says being a Palestinian journalist in the West Bank does not give one immunity from being attacked. Palestinian journalists are also harassed and arrested by Palestinian Authority security services when they report on issues that may be critical of the PA, she explained.
Elwan longs for her early days in journalism. Despite all the difficulties, journalists then had a lot more freedom than they do now.
“Let me say until 2006 we were the freest journalists talking about Yasser Arafat. I was insulting Yasser Arafat inside the Muqata during the Israeli invasion,” she said, referring to the then-PA president and the presidential compound in Ramallah in the West Bank.
Elwan says the turning point for Palestinian journalists came 15 years ago, at the same time that Mahmoud Abbas became PA president, when things began gradually changing.
“We started to see that our country is turning into a police state,” she said. “Every word that you say can be used against you.”
She says the older generation of journalists were not intimidated, but the new journalists, or the social media journalists, were attacked physically and mentally.
All these restrictions, Palestinian journalists say, forced many to self-censor.
“We are living in a dark era where journalism is concerned,” said Elwan.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq are among the most repressive Middle Eastern countries for journalism, according to the Press Freedom Index.
In Syria, local and international journalists continue to be targeted.
Obaida Hitto, an American correspondent for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation TRT World, reported from northern Syria for several years.
“I witnessed airstrikes, I’ve seen bombs dropped on the front positions, on homes, on buildings, on civilian neighborhoods. I witnessed hundreds of thousands of people clear their homes and head north toward the Syria-Turkey border,” he told The Media Line.
Syria stands at 173 out of 180 on the index, one spot higher than last year.
Journalists in the war-torn country put their lives on the line to cover the 10-year-old bloody civil war. They risk arrest, or abduction in a county where at least 10 journalists were killed in 2018.
“In one particular situation I was actually stuck in the traffic jam for over eight hours leaving southern Idlib for northern Syria, escaping a regime offensive,” said Hitto.
He says helpless people fleeing death with their families often blamed the journalists for not stopping the war.
“While interviewing people they would ask why we aren’t doing anything about their situation, getting angry at times at us, telling us that we are here to get a story and leave,” he said.
Hitto says in spite of all the horrific scenes he witnessed covering the Syrian war, he is still dedicated to his profession.
“I’m committed to continuing to report despite the very dangerous conditions in these places – to tell the stories of these people who don’t have a way to tell their story to the rest of the world.”
Iraq slipped one spot to 163 on the index. Journalists in Iraq work in unbearable conditions covering anti-government protests, remnants of the Islamic State Organization, and government corruption.
I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other job. It’s not easy as we journalists get blamed by everyone, but someone must tell the stories of the people.
Iraqi journalist Barzan Jabar started his career as a fixer and years later he covers the most restive and dangerous areas of Iraq.
“I remember the time when I went to the front line in Mosul, all I was thinking about is getting ready to die. Twice ISIS surrounded my team. I said to myself, it’s the end, but we escaped,” said Jabar.
He is proud that he provided extensive coverage of both Iraq and Syria during the toughest times.
“I visited maybe all the prisons in Iraq and Syria, to make interviews with ISIS fighters,” he said.
He continues the story: “On January 23 of this year, while in Erbil, in Kurdistan, Iraq I was arrested and put in jail with ISIS fighters for three days. It was all like a nightmare for me. Luckily, after that, they said it was by mistake and I was released.”
Despite that, Jabar says he has a passion for what he does and wouldn’t give it up.
“I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other job. It’s not easy as we journalists get blamed by everyone, but someone must tell the stories of the people. It’s sad to see Iraq has a poor showing in the latest report by Reporters Without Borders, I just hope that changes soon.”