Countries in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region continue to be the ““the toughest and most dangerous for journalists,” press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its latest annual 2021 World Press Freedom Index. According to the RSF, this is part of a broader global trend of journalism and press freedoms being “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in nearly 75% of the 180 countries that were examined in the index. Many countries, especially those in the MENA region, have used the pretext of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to increase their control over the media and severely restrict or interfere with access to accurate and reliable information.
Criticizing the countries of the region, the RSF in a statement said that “with massaged statistics and media outlets limited to publishing official releases, the Middle East’s most authoritarian countries have used the pandemic to continue or even reinforce their existing methods for gagging the press.” The RSF singled out countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt for “reaffirming their monopoly of news and information,” noting that they “already exercised almost total control over their media” even before the COVID-19 outbreak.
The index revealed that the MENA region has 12 ‘red’ or ‘black’ states, indicating that the status of press freedoms in those countries is either ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. Out of the total 180 countries in the index, Iran ranked 174th, Syria 173rd, Saudi Arabia 170th and Egypt came in at 166, with other countries in the region not faring much better. Algeria and Morocco were ranked marginally higher at 146 and 136, respectively. Yemen and Libya, both countries mired in civil conflict and years of foreign interference and military intervention by regional and global powers, ranked at 169 and 165, respectively. Iraq took the 163rd rank. As per the report, the MENA region countries continue to remain at the lowest in the rankings.
RSF highlighted some of the more high profile cases of persecution of journalists in these countries. It noted the murder of Lebanese writer-journalist Lokman Slim who was shot dead in his car in February this year, with many calling it a politically motivated assassination to silence a journalist who was critical of the government and the powerful sectarian groups in the country. RSF also cited the rapidly declining press freedoms in Algeria, where many journalists are being targeted and intimidated with threats of judicial prosecution and unreasonably long prison sentences. It mentioned the case of journalist Khaled Drareni who was handed a two-year prison term, which led to widespread criticism of the Algerian government.
RSF also expressed grave concern over the situation in Egypt, where the government has banned publication of COVID-19 statistics other than those compiled by the health ministry. The Egyptian government went to the extent of expelling a journalist with the British news outlet The Guardian for stating that the real COVID-19 numbers in Egypt could be substantially higher. With regard to Saudi Arabia, the RSF said that “journalists automatically become suspect if they opt for neutrality rather than toe the official media line, which is to sing MBS’s praises.” The number of journalists and citizen journalists jailed by the Saudi regime has grown three times since 2017. Many of them are being held illegally with allegations of mental and physical torture.
Other MENA countries such as Jordan, Iraq and Turkey were also pulled up for their undemocratic and anti-press freedoms measures and actions. Three of the region’s countries, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were last year also named by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as being among the world’s worst countries in terms of the number of journalists behind bars.
However, the RSF also claimed that all is not lost and that the rise of a significant number of independent media organizations in the region is a “small ray of hope.”