The Middle East and North Africa present journalists some of the most hostile working conditions in the world. The region is generally marked by government control and threats from powerful non-state actors. While the recent so-called Arab Spring in 2011 helped enable journalistic independence in parts of the region, such freedom was fleeting and the region’s media ecosystem is once again defined by close ties between news media and the government and, in some cases, overt oppression of journalists.
Modern Arab journalism emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, the region was swept by a new sense of Arab identity and Arab journalists were at the forefront of the secular pan-Arabism movement. Newspapers such as Halab in the Syrian city of Aleppo openly advocated for Arab nationalism immediately after the war (with quiet support from the British, who sought to replace the defeated Ottoman Empire with a series of Arab states).
However, that Arab nationalism soon evolved into an effort to combat European colonialism, and Arab journalists played a major role in promoting a shared vision of regional political and social justice. In the decades that followed, though, such efforts gave way to divisions, and the region’s elite news media generally transformed into government mouthpieces (or faced immense risks by staying independent).
Shortly after World War II, Arab journalism enjoyed a brief window of freedom. Lebanon, in particular, emerged as a media hub — and it remains so today — because of its history of a weak central government, intellectual liberalism, and a relatively liberal culture. At the time, editors in Beirut generally expressed a more activist approach to journalism by openly advocating for different political and social causes.
However, this would soon change throughout the region as newly independent Arab states sought to impose their versions of ‘truth’ and legitimize their governments by muzzling independent journalism. In places like Libya, Syria, and Iraq, revolutionary governments leveraged control over the press to mobilize public opinion in support of foreign policy objectives like the liberation of Palestine. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the government promoted private ownership but used different legal mechanisms to ensure that the proprietors were loyal to the government. This trend was only bucked in places like Lebanon, Kuwait, and Morocco, which permitted relatively independent journalism but still subjected them to more subtle pressures in order to maintain control of political discourses.
In short, over the past near-century, governments in the Middle East and North Africa have generally viewed news media as a tool for propaganda. Independent and more critical forms of journalism about the region thus had to be performed outside of it. Notably, in the 1970s, journalists and editors in the media hub of Beirut became the targets of assassinations and kidnappings during the Lebanese civil war, and newsrooms were bombed and their newspapers shuttered. Many prominent journalists and publications consequently fled to Europe. For example, the respected Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, whose founder had been assassinated, shifted it base to London, where it joined other prominent publications like the Saudi-run Asharq Al-Awsat and the Palestinian-run Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
Despite being run from abroad, those publications became among the most influential in the Middle East and North Africa — especially among the intellectual class. However, the outlets were still routinely targeted by state and non-state actors. For example, Al-Hayat’s offices in London, New York, Washington DC, and Riyadh were targeted by letter bombs and Asharq Al-Awsat’s Beirut bureau chief was convicted in absentia in Lebanon for “disturbing national security.”
Even in Israel, which has the region’s most vibrant and active media sector, journalists are sometimes subject to pre-publication military censorship, gag orders, and travel restrictions within the West Bank. Moreover, Palestinian outlets have been repeatedly shuttered by Israeli authorities and Palestinian journalists have been repeatedly arrested and detained by security forces. Consequently, as with earlier waves of journalist exiles, many Palestinian journalists have left the West Bank. However, like their predecessors, they face the risk of deportation if their reporting proves offensive to regional governments or powerful individuals, or if it harms international relations.
In contrast to Israel, Iran has offered a particularly repressive environment for journalists over the past few decades. While its 1979 revolution created a moment of journalistic freedom — more than 600 newspapers were founded within a year of the revolution — the next 10 years would be marked by arrests, abductions, and even executions of journalists. Today, Iran remains one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, and it is not just domestic journalists who are targeted. For example, Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post, was imprisoned for 18 months in 2014.
It is also important to note that broadcast media have been especially tightly controlled in the region. Up until the 1990s, most television channels in the Middle East and North Africa were owned by a government and their newscasts were tightly controlled. For example, during the first Gulf War, Saudi broadcasters did not mention Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait for three days while the Saudi royal family debated its official position. The emergence of satellite television has played a major role in opening the region to new perspectives — especially as more citizens began to illegally install receivers in the 1990s and, in some cases, pirated encrypted, foreign channels.
While journalists in the Middle East and North Africa routinely report valuing truth and objectivity, values which are frequently featured in journalistic codes of ethics across the region, the degree to which journalists can adhere to those ideals varies widely. Journalists in the region today face many of the same pressures as their predecessors under Ottoman rule. This includes harsh penalties for criticism of the ruler (whether a king or elected president) and the selective enforcement of libel laws to target critical journalists and journalistic outlets. For example, in the past decade alone, Mauritania opted to shut down private television channels critical of the president’s move to dissolve the senate; the Jordanian movement sought to disband a leading media watchdog group; and Iran repeatedly cracked down on news media shortly before elections.
In addition to legal threats, journalists in the region often fear for their personal safety. Ongoing patterns of harassment, threats, and attacks against journalists meant that the 2017 Freedom of the Press report categorized every Middle East and North Africa country besides Kuwait, Israel, and Tunisia as “not free.” Additionally, between 1992 and 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists identified at least 455 journalists who were killed during that period, and scores more who have been seriously injured. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent Syrian civil war have been particularly deadly for journalists.
Consequently, journalists in that region must negotiate their professional ideals against a backdrop of widespread official censorship and unofficial self-censorship as well as the prospect of violence against journalists. Unsurprisingly, Reporters Without Borders have described Arab journalists as being trapped in a cycle of repression and servility.
There are notable distinctions between the region’s dominant journalistic cultures and that of places like the United States. In particular, journalists in the Middle East and North Africa are far more likely to believe that a commitment to truth and informing the public must be balanced against (and should sometimes be outweighed by) being respectful of cultural values. For example, in 2006, a Danish newspaper published cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammed. While many Western news organizations reproduced those cartoons on principle, relatively few journalists in the Middle East did because, they openly contended, freedom of the press did not mean the freedom to knowingly offend. Moreover, journalists in the Middle East and North Africa are far more likely to adhere to values of political and social advocacy than their counterparts in places like the United States.
The launch of the Qatar-sponsored satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in 1996 had a transformative impact on the region’s journalism. Following a bloodless coup d’état, the new Qatari emir hired a group of journalists who were veterans of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Arab-language service and tasked them with creating an independent media powerhouse in the region. This was done largely to raise Qatar’s regional standing and counter the narratives from its neighboring media powerhouse, Saudi Arabia.
Al Jazeera brought an aggressive style of investigative journalism that was uncommon in the region’s media. Specifically, it engaged in investigative journalism that targeted Arab governments and dug into topics that other regional outlets were reluctant to explore. While Al Jazeera’s offices were quickly shut down in several regional capitals — and its reporters were outright banned from Saudi Arabia — the availability of satellite technology allowed its reporting to reach a large number of households in the region. Not only were audiences mesmerized but other regional journalists were inspired by Al Jazeera’s pioneering work. This, in turn, increased the appetite for a more professional approach to journalism and helped spur the creation of more journalism schools in the region and the incorporation of investigative practices in university and training curricula.
Saudi Arabia responded to Al Jazeera’s growing popularity by launching its own satellite broadcaster, Al Arabiya, in 2003. Al Arabiya offered parallel programming but from a Saudi perspective. These two broadcasters have had a major impact on regional attitudes toward the United States, especially during the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. (The U.S. government, in particular, was highly critical of Al Jazeera’s broadcasting of gruesome images of civilian casualties and giving voice to groups it designated as terroristic.) By 2017, there were close to 1,000 satellite channels in the Middle East and North Africa that spanned a wide range of political and religious perspectives and reached a sizable share of the region’s households.
Social media have also proved instrumental to the flow of information in the Middle East and North Africa. Cell phone video of a Tunisian street vendor setting himself on fire in protest of government harassment helped spark uprisings that would shake the Arab world at the beginning of the 2010s. Citizen-captured images and videos of protests throughout the region were disseminated on social media and amplified by regional satellite channels, galvanizing citizens across the region. In particular, Egyptian activists used Twitter to both inform and mobilize their fellow Egyptians against President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years.
However, as authoritarian rulers regained control of some of those countries, they cracked down on journalistic independence with renewed vigor. Today, editors in Egypt report significant levels of government interference, with large numbers of media outlets being shut down and journalists facing more frequent and harsher penalties for doing their work than ever before. So-called ‘fake news’ laws have been used to restrict access to information for citizens and to penalize journalists who challenge the Egyptian government. More broadly, scores of journalists in Morocco, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have been arrested as nervous governments sought to contain the spread of protests. The region’s journalists have thus faced remarkably challenging conditions after a brief period of optimism.
North Africa and the Middle East are arguably the regions with the most restrictive press laws. Despite brief moments of media freedom, the governments in that region routinely go after critical journalists and tend view media as government mouthpieces.
North Africa and the Middle East is also one of the most dangerous regions to report from, with journalists frequently targeted with violence. There is thus considerable pressure to self-censor as well.
The popularization of satellite television, and the emergence of Al Jazeera in particular, has had a transformative impact on journalism in that region. Additionally, social media have helped loosen the grip regional governments have had on information.