A Perilous Environment: Undermining Online Press Freedom in the Middle East

An Introduction

3 May marks World Press Freedom Day. A day to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental human right. In the midst of the outbreak COVID-19 pandemic and the safety measures required to protect people’s health and lives, journalists had to rely mainly on the Internet, particularly the social media platforms, to practice their work in monitoring public opinions, communicating with sources, and reporting news and stories. Regrettably, some governments have used the current crisis as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions on press freedom online and to crackdown and threaten journalists critical of the government policies and human rights violations. Internet brigades are often employed by governments or armed groups controlling a region to attack or threaten journalists, publically discredit them, and tarnish their images, causing them huge psychological and emotional losses and forcing some of them to stop practicing media work.

In the Middle East countries, severe restrictions have been imposed on media freedom. Hundreds of journalists have reportedly been harassed, threatened of defamation, arrested and prosecuted for merely expressing their opinions on social media platforms. Moreover, governments have imposed severe control restrictions on the freedom of the electronic press, which included blocking opposition websites. In their vein, many government agencies have orchestrated smear campaigns to silence whoever, among journalists, dares to cross red lines and raise his voice against the government or its policies. Besides, female journalists have been threatened with sexual violence and defamation, especially in countries like Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Libya. In Iraq, for example, some armed militias have launched a widespread wave of incitement on social media against journalists of the Tigris News Channel, which included publishing their names and threatening them by death at the background of their journalistic work, which forced them to quit their jobs.

In Lebanon, the situation is not much different. Journalists are targeted because of their work or because of their opinions on social media that is critical to the government policies. For example, the Lebanese journalist, Layal Alekhtiar, was the latest victim of cyber bullying by the Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigade militia. She has received verbal and even death threats after her tweet criticizing the newly erected statue of the late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In Tunisia, politicians directly target journalists with hate speech and defamation. For example, in October 2020, Al-Karama (Dignity) Coalition launched digital waves of defamation and insulting against journalists rejecting some of the laws presented by the coalition in Parliament. Naji Al-Bghouri and Hamza Al-Bloumi were among the journalists who were targeted by online smear campaigns, threats and incitement. The aim of these systematic campaigns is to pressure journalists to stop their opposition to the Dignity Coalition.

On another hand, governments in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey have investigated, arrested, and prosecuted journalists for their opinions on social media. In Palestine, journalists are investigated and arrested on charges of misusing technology due to their views against Hamas. Journalists in Turkey are also facing unfair trials and forced arrests over charges of supporting terrorism and extremism or insulting the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for their opinions on social media that are against the Turkish government's policies. On June 24, 2020, the trial of seven journalists and one municipal press officer over news coverage and social media posts about a National Intelligence Organization (MİT) operative killed in Libya got underway at the 34th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.

In this vein, governments take a set of measures to strictly control the circulation of press information online. These practices include blocking websites or passing new laws that restrict journalistic work. For example, the Algerian government issued in December 2020 a new law that intensifies the monitoring process on websites, which coincides with the blocking of opposition Algerian websites . Based on the state of oppression and authoritarianism imposed by governments on online media freedom in the period between May 2020 to May 2021, this study discusses press freedom on the Internet, including the imprisonment and online prosecution of journalists for their opinions critical to the government as well as their exposure to hate and defamation campaigns that threaten their lives and aim to muzzle their voices, in addition to the various attempts to impose semi-blanket control and censorship over the news blogs and the press release websites.

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