The second of June marked the second anniversary of the assassination of Lebanese writer Samir Qasir, with no indication of who ordered the car bombing that silenced one of the loudest Arab voices criticizing autocratic Arab regimes, particularly the Assad family in Syria. The fact that the perpetrators have escaped punishment has paved the way for similar crimes, for example the murder of Gibran Tueni, the owner of the newspaper al-Nahar and a member of the Lebanese parliament, and the attempted assassination of the journalist Mai Shadyaq. Then there was the discovery of the body of Libyan journalist Dayf al-Ghazal, mutilated by torture, in the city of Benghazi in the same week as the murder of Qasir. With the exception of the Libyan intelligence services, no one knows who kidnapped and tortured to death the journalist who had resorted to the internet to write about the oppression and corruption under Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. The last few years have produced a strange situation in which journalists feel under threat across the region, whether they work in countries where constraints on freedom of expression have intensified—Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya—or those in which red lines have begun to disappear, such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen. The situation in Egypt typifies this paradox of greater freedom along with harsh measures against some of those who transgress ambiguous limits. Egypt has permitted the establishment of independent newspapers (notably al-Masri al-Yawm and the return of al-Dustur after nearly seven years of prohibition), leading to a notable improvement in the quality of political debate. It has also witnessed greater exposure in the media, even the government media, for opposition figures and civil society activists who in the recent past were treated as enemies of the regime. But at the same time, Egypt has seen a sharp rise in legal cases against journalists due to their writings, especially those that deal with corruption or torture, some of them resulting in prison sentences despite the promises of President Mubarak that he would work to end this practice. For example, in February the blogger Karim Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for expressing contempt for Islam and insulting the president. In May, journalist Huweida Taha was sentenced in absentia to six months imprisonment for damaging Egypt's national interests and publishing false news. Taha had made a documentary on torture broadcast by al-Jazeera television and also raised doubts about Mubarak's readiness to push Egypt toward true democratic reform.
In several other countries there is a similar situation, in which the regime uses the judiciary to settle accounts with journalists. For example, in Algeria Muhammad Benchicou (publisher of the now defunct Le Matin) was sentenced to two years in prison in 2004 following the publication of a book highly critical of President Bouteflika. In Yemen, journalists are imprisoned from time to time under fabricated political accusations or are beaten or kidnapped, as happened to Jamal Amer is 2005. In recent weeks, a number of news websites have been shut down in Yemen.
Journalists in Morocco, which has seen bolder political reform than most other Arab countries, also are still at the mercy of regime retribution, reinforced by legislation that places the king and his family above the law. The sentencing of Ali Lmrabet to three years in jail in 2003 and the imposition later of a ten year ban on his writing for defaming the king and threatening territorial integrity of the nation is a prime example. Journalist Bubakar al-Jama'i was forced to leave the country early this year due to repeated prosecution and harassment. At least Morocco openly acknowledges that its judiciary lacks independence, perhaps winning some points for honesty.
Add to these cases of prosecution and abuse the many attacks on journalists in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion, and it is clear that the Arab region has become the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. The United States and Europe have ignored the problem, clearly more concerned now about securing the cooperation of Arab rulers than about supporting freedom. Nevertheless, this grim reality has not deterred Arab journalists and bloggers from continuing to sacrifice themselves in order to challenge the limits on freedom of expression. What the international community owes such journalists, at a minimum, is insistence on prosecution of those who have committed the most egregious crimes, such as the killers of Qasir and Tueni. Although pursuing such cases will be difficult, it has begun to look more like a possibility after the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1757, which establishes an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and other crimes.
Kamel Labidi is a journalist from Tunisia. This article was translated from Arabic by Kevin Burnham.