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Watchdog Group Says Top Journalist-Jailer Countries are in Mideast

Region’s governments continue to make it dangerous for reporters to work

Three of the four countries that incarcerate the most journalists are in the Middle East, according to the latest annual report put out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), published on December 11.

China is the worst offender, with at least 48 journalists behind bars as of December 1. Turkey, in second place with 47 reporters imprisoned, took the title the previous four years.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are tied for third place, with 26 incarcerated reporters each. Iran took the sixth spot, with 11.

At least 250 journalists are being held worldwide as a result of their profession.

The prominent presence of Middle Eastern countries on the list shows just how challenging covering the area can be. According to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, “the Middle East and North Africa region continues to be the most difficult and dangerous for journalists.”

The CPJ found that 8 percent of reporters under government detention are women, down from 13% the previous year. More than 50% of reporters jailed have had their work appear on the internet. Those covering politics, human rights and corruption have the greatest chance of being imprisoned.

The latest CPJ report tallies only journalists jailed by the state, and not those in the custody of third-parties, such as militias, or those who have gone missing.

Turkey’s imprisonment rate dropped slightly because Ankara has stepped up its efforts to shutter news organizations entirely, according to the report.

Monir Zaarour, Middle East and Arab World policy and program director at the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), says the problem goes beyond imprisonment.

“It’s not only journalists in jail, but journalists who are forced out of the profession because their medium has been shut down by the government,” he told The Media Line. “These number in the hundreds.”

The IFJ and other press-rights groups have been trying to provide grants to those who have lost their jobs. “Otherwise, critical reporting will disappear in the countr[ies] in question,” Zaarour said.

The Turkish regime’s harassment of journalists does not stop at the country’s borders.

Abdullah Bozkurt, director of the Stockholm-based Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and author of Turkey Interrupted: Derailing Democracy, has personally experienced government abuse.

“I’m not in Turkey but have been covering Turkey from exile, yet I also face challenges, from facing false criminal charges in politically motivated cases to being viciously targeted by pro-government media with a defamation campaign,” he told The Media Line.

“I’ve routinely been subject to threats, including of death, because of articles critical of the government that I publish regularly,” he said.

Saudi Arabia does not even pretend to provide a fair trial, something that would allow journalists to contest the charges against them, according to Elana Beiser, author of the CPJ report. Many undergo show trials, while others have not even been told why they were being detained.

One of the most infamous cases of journalist abuse at the hands of the Saudis was the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018.

Over in Egypt, freelancer Ariane Lavrilleux told The Media Line that the obstacles she faces as a foreign correspondent pale in comparison to what local journalists experience.

“Egyptian journalists are at great risk because they can be arrested at any time,” she said. “They can be prosecuted, kidnapped by the security forces…. This is thanks to new counterterrorism regulations and laws that allow the imprisonment of any journalist and critical voice.”

Egypt’s 2015 antiterrorism legislation defines any undertaking that “dismantles” the country’s social fabric or disturbs the public sphere as “terrorist crimes.” Reporters who are not Egyptian citizens can be forced to leave the country for reasons that are arbitrary or even completely unknown.

“The biggest problem for foreign journalists is that the [boundaries] aren’t clear and you can be suddenly expelled,” Lavrilleux said. “You never know exactly when you will cross a red line, and many foreign journalists have been expelled without knowing why.”

She insists that the situation is worse than it was before the so-called 2011 Arab Spring, during which autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

“According to NGOs and journalists, both foreign and Egyptian, the situation before and during the Arab Spring was not good,” she said. “But since 2013, it has been the worst time period for… freedom of the press in Egypt.”

The IFJ’s Zaarour is all too familiar with this situation.

“Journalists who want to express their views or rights freely have to leave Egypt, something we have been seeing [more of] in the last few years,” he said. “More and more journalists are leaving the country, either for neighboring countries or to Europe, to be able to work and write.”

Andrea Backhaus, now the Middle East editor at Zeit Online, an online German weekly, dealt first-hand with worsening conditions when she was stationed in Cairo in 2013-2015.

“I often had the feeling that I was being followed in the streets…. People tried to break into my apartment [a few times], and I suspected that they were from the security apparatus. Several of my journalist friends were arrested,” she told The Media Line.

“I finally decided to leave,” Backhaus continued, “after some of [my local colleagues] were arrested by the police after we finished [our work]. I knew they were following and watching me, and they would punish the Egyptians who gave interviews to us. I thought that I had to leave so as not to cause people any more trouble.”

Many reporters in the field believe that global pressure on countries in the region could help.

“I think there could be more of a public outcry from foreign [organizations] in Egypt, as Egypt is a major partner of Western governments, especially the US,” Lavrilleux said.

Author Bozkurt agrees.

“Turkey needs to be held to account on international obligations to protect freedom of press, speech and expression under UN and European conventions to which it is a party,” he said.