The Gulf states 7.02.2008
The Gulf states - Annual report 2008
The Arab world’s media has expanded significantly over the past decade. The proliferation of satellite TV stations in Arabic and the growth of the Internet have destabilised regimes that previously controlled incoming and outgoing news with ease. One sign of change was in Saudi Arabia, where censors put away the scissors and markers they used to delete news they did not like. The Internet appeared in the Gulf around 1999 and despite much censorship, has enabled journalists to work more freely and ordinary citizens to talk about their problems through online forums and blogs.
Petty control of the media
Press freedom in the Gulf states varies but journalists there have similar problems. Violations get little publicity, self-censorship is widely practised and the media knows the red lines not to cross. The media is severely controlled in Saudi Arabia, much like the society itself. The situation is better in the other Gulf monarchies but arbitrary behaviour is still the rule. Journalists can be arrested and detained for long periods (in Saudi Arabia the legal custody period is six months).
Journalists in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar complained about how hard it was to get access to official information and report on social unrest. Ghanem al-Suleimani and Nur Handawi, of the daily Al-Rai, were arrested for questioning for several hours in Kuwait after covering an unauthorised meeting there in January 2007. Police handcuffed and blindfolded them and took them to a police station. Zainab Abdulnabi and Seyed Ali al-Najjar, of the Iranian TV station Al-Alam, were arrested by plainclothes police in July as they reported on a demonstration in front of United Natuins offices in Manama (Bahrain). The journalist and the cameraman were questioned about their work for five hours before being freed. Journalists in Doha (Qatar) said in December they had not been able to report freely on the strikes staged by foreign workers. The Qatar supreme court limited media access to courts in October and journalists must now have a judge’s permission to be there.
Taboos died hard
The reforms begun in Saudi Arabia have had a good effect on both society and the media, according to many Saudi journalists. The royal family and religion still cannot be criticised, but the media’s margin for manoeuvre has significantly increased. Newspaper editors are still under pressure to avoid discussing the country’s international relations or national security. When “mistakes” are made, they are usually encouraged to dismiss the journalists considered to be “disrespectful” by the regime. Two journalists of the daily Al-Wakt in Bahrain were summoned by the authorities in January for referring to "Bandargate,” a political scandal involving the royal family and regime officials that has been a forbidden topic since 2006.
Foreign journalists in delicate position
The Gulf states’ media employ very many foreigners, mostly from Arab countries and southern Asia, as in other parts of the society. In Qatar, they have to be sponsored by a local institution or by the information ministry and be accredited with the government’s Foreign Information Agency. To leave the country, they have to have an exit visa and permission from their sponsor. The formalities are far fewer in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where journalists based in Dubai’s Media City have more facilities. Important media outlets, such as the BBC, CNN and the French news agency Agence France-Presse, have opened regional offices there.
Foreign journalists based in the Gulf states or on assignment there can usually work freely. However, French journalist Aurélien Colly, correspondent for RFI and France 24, was barred from entering Qatar on 30 November 2007 despite having all accreditation to cover a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Colly’s residence permit was cancelled without explanation when he was living in Qatar in June 2006. Foreign journalists in Dubai were confronted by state security agents after covering the rape of a French minor by two UAE citizens.
Gulf states journalists are also under pressure from the judiciary. Even a country like Kuwait, where press offences are not longer punishable by prison sentences, journalists fear huge fines. Ten complaints were filed in 2007 against Mansur al-Muharib, editor of the Kuwaiti weekly Al-Abraj, after he printed articles about corruption. He said the gains the media had made were being threatened by the intolerance of the information ministry.
Moves to decriminalise press offences have been made in Bahrain and the UAE but their parliaments had not taken action by the beginning of 2008. Two journalists from the daily Khaleej Times, Mohsen Rashed and Shimba Kassiril Ganjadahran, were freed by the Dubai appeals court after being sentenced on 24 September 2007 to two months in prison for defamation. The court was clearly swayed by a call a few days earlier by UAE prime minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktum for a new press law.
Flaws in the Internet
Online freedom is threatened by every complaint filed against online journalists or webmasters. Saudi blogger Ahmad Fuad al-Farhan was arrested in December without explanation and was still in prison at the start of 2008.
Bahrain stepped up its censorship of online publications, especially those concerning human rights. A score of websites dealing with religion or politics were blocked by the authorities in 2007 on the excuse that they mentioned the Bandargate scandal. Bloggers are often arrested, showing that the rules are confused. More than a dozen journalists, bloggers and webmasters were prosecuted between April and October 2007 under articles 365 of the criminal law and article 47 of the press law. Since 2005, websites about Bahrain have to register with the information ministry, making it easier to control them.
The authorities in the UAE emirate of Ras al-Khaimah targeted Muhammad Rashed Shehhi, owner of the website Majan.net, who was arrested for an irreverent comment about the royal family posted by an anonymous contributor and spent 2007 appearing in court for defamation. He was sentenced to a year in prison, which was later cancelled after political pressure.
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© Reporters Without Borders 2008