Research recently conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Middle East has shown that although the constitutions of the majority of Middle Eastern countries provide for freedom of expression, in reality conventional and international media remain under a restricted and intimidatory legal, political and security environment.
The research also found that national press and publication laws are frequently changed and vaguely worded, opening them to wide interpretation and potential abuse.“The media – old and new, local and international – has paid a heavy price for its sustained and courageous efforts to inform local and international populations about the political upheavals in the Middle East, said Fateh Azzam, head of the UN human rights regional office for the Middle East, on World Press Freedom Day. His words acknowledged the vital role played by the media in covering events as they have unfolded in the Middle East.
The toll has been high. “Journalists across the Middle East are being harassed, intimidated, arbitrarily detained and deported, subjected to torture and other forms of violence, and some have been killed,” Azzam said.
According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, so far this year, eight journalists in the Middle East have lost their lives as a result of their work: one in Lebanon, six in Syria and one in Bahrain.
Noting these trends, Azzam said “many governments in the region have used emergency regulations and their security services [and in some countries, the army] to clamp down on freedom of expression and place restrictions on media organizations and outlets.”
In Syria, the UN rights body said local and international journalists continue to be targeted. “Journalists and activists remain in detention after a raid in February on the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. The detainees have been denied due process and rights groups claim they have been tortured,” the OHCHR said.
The rights body also cited several cases from Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait.
OHCHR said continuing violence against journalists has been reported in Yemen since political unrest erupted last year, including physical assaults, detentions and attacks on news outlets.
The latest violation in Bahrain, according to the rights body, occurredwhen authorities deniedentry to at least seven international journalists prior to the Formula One Grand Prix.
Three Saudi Web journalists whose sites cover political unrest in the country’s troubled Eastern Province were arrested in March, and a Jordanian journalist was detained in April after publishing an article alleging misconduct by the Royal Court, the OHCHR said.
In Kuwait, a court in March suspended a private newspaper for three months and sentenced its editor to a six-month prison term for articles pointing to discrimination against the country’s minorities, the UN body added.
“Governments in the Middle East, in effect, prevent conventional media from fully doing their work, including having direct access to situations where very serious human rights violations are taking place,” Azzam said.
“This situation must change,” he said, adding that “an open and free press is crucial for the exercise of democratic participation.”
“On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2012, the UN Human Rights regional office in the Middle East reiterates its readiness to support the governments and peoples of the region to achieve a greater commitment to the fundamental right of all to free and unhindered access to information,” Azzam added.
Reporters without Borders, a nongovernmental organization which monitors the safety of journalistsand media freedom internationally, ranked half of the countries in the Middle East in the bottom third in its latest Worldwide Press Freedom Index.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay said governments must work to protect the media and “investigate and bring to justice those responsible for violent assaults upon journalists.”
Pillay said she believes ultimately these attempts to proscribe the fundamental right to freedom of expression will fail.
“The world has changed forever. Global communications technologies now reach the furthermost corners of the globe. The stories will be told, read, watched and listened to by people well beyond the borders of their countries of origin,” she said.