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Arab Spring Countries Lag Behind in Press Freedom
04/02/2013 12:40:00
Libyans protesting at Martyrs Square during the February 17, 2011 Revolution

By Elena Lesley

Two years after the Arab Spring, media freedom is under threat in the region, with journalists subject to legal and physical attack in Tunisia and Egypt, and prone to self-censorship in Libya’s unstable social environment, according to sources in the industry.

After the uprisings that swept North Africa in 2011, “I had high expectations I would finally work independently and with freedom,” said Magdy Samaan, a reporter for the Daily Telegraph‘s Cairo bureau who formerly wrote for Arabic-language Egyptian newspapers. “But it has been a huge disappointment. The attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood are even worse than Mubarak.”

The recently published Press Freedom Index for 2013, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders, ranked Egypt at 158 out of 179 countries, Tunisia at 138, and Libya at 131. A higher score corresponds with less media freedom.

Egypt and Libya both slightly improved their rankings - eight and 23 points, respectively - while Tunisia dropped by four points. In its methodology, Reporters Without Borders takes into account a number of factors, including journalists killed or imprisoned, as well as perceptions related to self-censorship, transparency, and media pluralism.

“This is not a surprise. Reporters Without Borders is echoing what has been happening in Tunisia as far as press freedom is concerned,” said Kamel Laabidi, president of Tunisia’s National Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC). “The Islamist-led government has been turning its back on international standards of freedom of expression.”

In its summary introduction of the 2013 index, Reporters Without Borders wrote that, in North Africa, “some of the new governments spawned by these protest movements have turned on the journalists and netizens who covered these movements’ demands and aspirations for more freedoms.”

Laabidi said the media environment was more open immediately after the Tunisian revolution, but that the situation had deteriorated under the current government.

He faulted leaders for failing to implement decrees 115 and 116, which were drafted after the revolution in an effort to guarantee press freedom. Rather, he said, the current government has used the penal code from the Ben Ali regime to take legal action against journalists.

“The media should not just say nice things about the government,” he said. “The time when journalists were jailed for doing their job should be over.”

Laabidi cited the rising number of attacks against journalists as “a source of alarm,” especially since he said the government has launched no official investigations to pursue those responsible.

Journalists in Egypt also face prosecution and persecution, Samaan said. Although he had previously written for Arabic-language newspapers, before and after the revolution, he began working for English-language press in the fall of 2011 due to an increasingly restrictive local media environment.

Protesters on the first year anniversary of the Tunisian revolution criticise the pace of democratic reform

“I will not accept to work for a newspaper that is not completely free,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood has brought journalists to trial for insulting the president or religion, Samaan explained. Yet he added that the current regime does not yet have complete control over media and journalists are “still in a revolutionary mood.”

He worries for the future, however, and said the anti-journalistic attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood have penetrated the views of many uneducated Egyptians.

“People don’t understand the point of media,” he said. “In the countryside, people will yell at journalists: ‘you are destroying the country! You are corrupt!’”

Meanwhile, in Libya, journalists “are witnessing a totally new experience of press freedom that they had never experienced before,” according to Dr. Said Laswad, editor of The Tripoli Post and professor of political science at Tripoli University.

“In some ways, they just cannot believe it and they also do not know what to do with all that freedom of expression after so many decades of total oppression.”

While Laswad and other journalists interviewed said Libyans were very proud of their new freedoms, they said they also resort to self-censorship at times for social reasons or out of a fear of potential reprisals.

After having lived under such a repressive dictatorship, fear still exists among journalists, who “would still rather try not to push the margin of freedom further,” Laswad said.

Due to a weak central government and lack of rule of law, journalists do not trust that institutions exist to protect them from reprisals, particularly from local militias, Laswad and others interviewed said.

The lack of professionalism is also a major hurdle to a free and independence press in Libya. One foreign journalist, who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons, referred to Libya as “a land of rumours.”

Laswad noted that Muammar Gaddafi was able to stay in power by fostering ignorance, spreading misinformation and stifling the development of professional journalists. Now, in order to promote democracy, journalists must be properly trained and protected, he added.

The media environment at the moment may appear more free than in Tunisia or Egypt, but this could change as the government solidifies and centralizes power, according to sources inside Libya.

In all three countries, journalists remain anxious about the prospects for truly free and independent media and how this will affect post-revolution social development.

According to Laabidi, “despite the hope prompted by the Arab Spring, those in power do not seem to understand that to lead countries to democracy you need to let the press do its job.”

(This article was originally published by tunisia live – www.tunisialive.net)

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