On World Press Freedom Day, GCHR calls for protection of journalists and freedom of the press across the MENA region

On World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2019, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) regrettably can only report on the very bleak conditions for the media in general and journalists specifically in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many journalists are being targeted, and working under very hard conditions and with constant fear of reprisals.

Journalism has become a very risky profession in which journalists, bloggers and social media activists could face anything from harassment, beatings, torture, imprisonment and even death, as in the case of Syrian citizen journalist Ali Mahmood Othman, whose family has only recently been informed of his death in prison in December 2013. Othman is believed to have been targeted for being the head of a media center and for merely doing interviews without covering his face. A shocking number of journalists and online activists have been murdered in Syria, whether in prison or through targeted assassinations like radio show host Raed Fares, murdered in Idlib in November 2018. Some reports put the number of media workers killed in detention over 50, in addition to the many assassinated on the job.

In general, and based on reliable reporting, the targeting of journalists is on the rise globally. In the MENA region where the official media is so heavily restricted, many turned to social media to report and write in a way that they would not be able to in an official context. However, bloggers and social media activists have been targeted even more aggressively. Time and time again we have seen people imprisoned and prosecuted over a tweet, a facebook post or a blog. Indeed, twitter prosecutions were invented in the region when Nabeel Rajab, GCHR’s Founding Director, was the first to be jailed for a tweet in Bahrain in May 2012, and he is currently in prison serving seven years for tweets about the war in Yemen and torture in prison.

GCHR finds it very worrying that surveillance software used to target journalists and human rights defenders is exported to the governments by European Union-based companies. This software makes it easier for this already vulnerable group to be targeted more viciously. For example, GCHR’s Advisory Board member Ahmed Mansoor, is serving a 10-year sentence in the United Arab Emirates, where he is being held in terrible conditions for his online activities. He was famously hacked by the authorities before his arrest.

From the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 to the many cases of journalists and bloggers who have been imprisoned or forced to flee in fear for their lives, Saudi Arabia remains a very dangerous country in which to be a journalist. Journalists are even targeted from exile, like Khashoggi himself who was killed in Istanbul, or have their family members persecuted.

Across the region, we find a trend in which it seems that these horrible conditions seem be an expected reality in this profession. It is by targeting this group of brave people reporting on human rights violations that governments ensure they can act against basic rights of the people without being monitored. In this sense the targeting of the media, and the lack of its freedom, directly effects the human rights conditions in each country. UNESCO’s observatory records 509 journalists killed across the Arab world since 1993, out of 1324 recorded for the entire world.

These crimes against journalists only become more frequent with the widespread culture of impunity, in which we hear of many well documented cases of abuse, threats and extra judicial killings, but rarely hear of anyone being held accountable for those crimes. Rarely has anyone been convicted or even arrested for the murder of journalists from across the region – including in Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. GCHR believes that only with ending this culture of impunity can we hope for more protection for those working in the press. This not only serves to protect the media, but in turn would be a reason for a general change in the status quo. For with the worsening conditions for journalists, and without media freedom, human rights conditions can only worsen.

GCHR and partners including IFEX have made recommendations to combat impunity, including identifying the perpetrators and the masterminds, and urging an immediate and serious investigation in order to find practical and effective mechanisms that decisively end impunity in crimes against journalists in all countries in our region.

GCHR stands in solidarity with all journalists, bloggers and social media activists in the region, whether they are working under hard conditions, in fear of reprisals, or facing harassment and imprisonment. We also stand in commemoration of all those who have sacrificed their lives to bravely document what happens in their countries.