In the Middle East, who does the news serve; what can journalists, activists, and everyday people say in public and online—and at what risk? This bundle of questions framed the discussion at the Arab Center Washington D.C.’s annual conference on Thursday. Citizens are increasingly empowered by social media, but governments have responded with a host of violent practices and new laws that silence individuals. This is evident from countries’ ranking on the press freedom index. Out of 180 states, six in the Middle East—Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya—were in the bottom 10 percent. No Middle Eastern country made it to the top 30 percent, including Israel.
The modern Arab security state is trying to “penetrate our minds and our thoughts,” said Rami Khouri, a columnist for Beirut’s Daily Star and a visiting journalism professor at Harvard. Speaking in broad terms, Khouri said these states deploy “draconian methods of mind control” over the population, stripping individuals of autonomy and even thought itself.
Censorship is rampant, and journalists, artists, and activists—plus everyday citizens—are routinely targeted online by their governments. They face prison time for violating cyber crime laws, new repressive tools that criminalize all speech critiquing the government, according to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. When states implement punitive measures that surveil social media and police online platforms, they are not giving “one thought to their constitutions,” added Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Worse yet, state censorship can be lethal. The world continues to grapple with the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was murdered by Saudi operatives last year in the Istanbul consulate. Other states have used violent means to silence the media, too. Ten journalists were arrested by Houthi separatists in Yemen in 2015—and they continue to withstand prolonged detention and torture. In Iran, a journalist was sentenced to four years and 60 lashes for “propagating against the regime,” “creating public anxiety,” and “spreading falsehoods.”
It’s important to note, however, that state repression in the Middle East does not exist everywhere or at all times. In the Gulf region, Saudi authoritarianism is contrasted with relatively free expression and debate in Qatar. The Qatari-run Al Jazeera network is famous for its broad, social justice–leaning news coverage (and for its meager coverage of Qatari politics), whereas Saudi’s Al Arabiya is more conservative and traditionalist. And in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, according to media scholar Mohamad Elmasry, there was unprecedented media and political freedom. But today, Egyptian journalists face astronomic threats. Just weeks ago, the state abducted and tortured journalist Esraa Abdelfattah amid an escalating clampdown.
Journalists in Palestine are also under fire—literally. According to United Nations findings, Israeli snipers intentionally targeted Palestinian journalists, as well as children and people with disabilities, during the Great March of Return, a weekly mass protest along the Israel-Gaza perimeter. The peaceful demonstrations, which began in March 2018, pose one demand: the right for Palestinians to return to their historical land. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media monitoring organization, has roundly condemned mainstream coverage of the protests, and a Canadian research firm recently reported that such coverage is systematically anti-Palestinian, after studying nearly 100,000 U.S. news headlines on the issue.
As panelists broadly analyzed the unfreedom of writers, activists, and others across the so-called Arab world, some speakers emphasized that there, too, exist restrictions on free speech in the West, both implicitly and otherwise. Marc Lamont Hill, a scholar-activist teaching at Temple University, noted the paucity of U.S. media coverage of Israel-Palestine. The issue is such a flashpoint in the U.S., given its close ties with Israel, that certain views are simply unspeakable even though free speech is legally protected. Hill was fired from CNN after delivering a speech to the U.N. on justice for Palestine. On university campuses, scholars are routinely harassed, blacklisted, or fired for denouncing the Israeli occupation or advocating Palestinian rights.
Due to a “commitment to the status quo,” Hill explained, the American media does not generally cover Israel-Palestine—and when it does, it’s one-sided. “There has to be space for a conversation about freedom of expression on this issue,” he added. “There needs to be room for people with a different point of view.”