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May 4, 2012 2:25 pm

Freedom of Press Remains Blocked in the Middle East

avatar by Erin Dwyer

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An anti-government sign compares Bahrain's King Hamad to deposed dictators Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, ZIne El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Photo: wiki commons.

Global media freedom did not decline last year for the first time in eight years, according to an annual report released by Freedom House Tuesday. But even with that positive news, the report expressed that the Middle East and North Africa experienced “dramatic if precarious gains” in freedom, and that the surfacing governments of Arab Uprising states seek to restrict the freedom of press in their countries.

Showcasing a glimmer of progress, the report noted that Libya’s transitional government has taken steps to liberalize the media but still refrains from establishing the institutions necessary to guarantee its freedom. Conversely, it also revealed Egypt’s interim military government maintains “many features of the old regime”, including interfering with television news. Reporters Without Borders has also accused Egypt’s interim leaders of “violating freedom of information” while the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights revealed last month a profound reluctance in Egypt’s media outlets to criticize courts and expose corruption.

Further illustrating the failure of Arab Uprising countries to fulfill the promise of greater media freedom, Tunisia, the birthplace of the revolution, recently fined a private TV station for broadcasting the film “Persepolis”. The court’s ruling that the award-winning animated film “disturbs public order and threatens proper morals” due to a scene depicting God raises critical concerns regarding the evolution of freedom of expression in a new Tunisia.

Similarly, in another Arab Uprising-affected country, Bahrain’s King Hamad has accused foreign media of embellishing unrest and provoking violence in the Gulf State. Hamad’s accusations follow a year of futile efforts to crush uprisings in support of democratic reform and April’s Grand Prix race where authorities blocked media freedom groups from entering the country.

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According to Freedom House’s president David Kramer, the cultivation of open media environments is critical in Arab Uprising states for future regional democratic development, and the ‘Spring’ now has non-‘Spring’ governments on the defensive. Consequently, the Palestinian Authority recently blocked at least eight websites that criticized President Mahmoud Abbas, while China and several African countries have taken precautionary measures ranging from information blackouts in state media to Internet and text-message filtering.

While global media freedom has not shown an overall decline in the last year, that level remains contested by leaders willing to curtail freedom for the sake of power. Until media environments are protected by both institutions and legal structures, challenges to the freedoms of press and expression in the Middle East will continue to test the resilience of the Arab Uprising’s democratic spirit.

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