Arab media: historical background

The press in the Arab world:
100 years of suppressed freedom

by Said Essoulami

The history of press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa in the last century is determined by the interaction of several political, economic, social and technological factors. Among the most important of the political factors we should cite: the Arab nationalism which called for independence from the Ottoman, French and British empires, the creation of the state of Israel and its ensuing wars, military coups d’etat, civil conflicts and the Gulf War, as well as the development of a politicised Islam. The petrol boom, the baby boom and its corollary of an increase in literacy, as well as radio and television competition, have also influenced the development of the press and the extent of its freedoms.

In a region dominated by the Ottoman Empire, newspapers that had existed from the middle of the eighteenth century were the tools of Turkish authorities or foreign Embassies. The independent Arab written press did not appear until the middle of the nineteenth century, and notably in Egypt in the cultural and intellectual renaissance of the 1860s and 1870s which was encouraged by the liberal Khedive Ismail who governed Egypt between 1863 and 1979. In Syria and Iraq, the written press appeared a few years later, but was the victim of frequent censorship, which drove Syrian-Lebanese journalists abroad to Egypt where press freedom was guaranteed. It was these Syrian-Lebanese journalists, bent on resuscitating Arab literature in the name of past Arab glory, who were in the avant-garde of modern Arab journalism and launched newspapers which in turn became models for the Arab press. Such was the case of the brothers Salim and Bishara Takla, who founded "Al-Ahram" in Cairo.

At the end of the Ottoman period which drew to a close at the culmination of the First World War, journalism did not reach beyond the confines of a traditional system which organised the relationship between the political class and the rest of the population according to principles of obedience and respect for the established political authority. Some jour­nalists, inspired by European liberalism, challenged this system by criticising Turkish authority, but they paid dearly for their activities by prison, torture or simply the banning of their newspapers. Some of them resorted to exile in France or Great Britain, where they set up newspapers and reviews. These journalists were more driven by literature and politics than by the principle of information.

It was only from 1908 onwards, in response to pressure from the Young Turks, that legal and political restrictions were lifted on the founding of newspapers, which allowed an independent press to develop in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. In 1909, for example, there were 144 newspapers and reviews in Egypt, 90 in Cairo and 45 in Alexandria. This press was always animated by young writers and politicians committed to the promotion of a national Arab conscience in the context of Turkish domination.

With the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of French and English colonialism, a new press emerged in the region. At first by European colonisers, then by the native people. The Europeans, and especially the French, set up a press in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. The English preferred to keep the nascent political press in Egypt in check rather than to take its place. Several political parties were formed in Egypt during the two world wars and were able to launch their own press organs which expressed the national drive for the country’s independence. The Palestinian press which appeared in 1908 and went on to be strangled by the Turks, was not able to appear on the scene again after the First World War. Its major concern was British colonial policy and especially the Zionist movement which took root in Palestine and which went on to benefit from the Balfour Declaration which designated Palestine as the Jewish homeland. Colonial censorship of the local press was more restrictive, especially during the two world wars.

From 1945 onwards, the press became the privileged instrument in the fight for national independence. The nationa­lists, who were often journalists by profession, suffered all forms of brutal treatment at the hands of the colonial authori­ties: prison, torture and exile. Their newspapers were suspended or banned. The Arab press, especially in Palestine, was not only bent to the colonial yoke, but also went on to confront the creation of Israel in 1948.

After the independence of the Arab states, the need to construct a national economics thrust the call for freedom and individual rights into the background. The 1952 revolution in Egypt, followed by coups d’etats in Iraq and Syria, brought an end to the multiparty system and to the independent press. In North Africa, freedoms gave rise to repressive regimes. President Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished the multi-party system, nationalised the press and created institutional frame­works subject to one party rule by the Arab Socialist party. In Syria and Iraq, the Ba'athist army did the same; in Algeria the National Liberation Front established the system of one-party rule and journalists became civil servants answerable to the socialist revolution. In Tunisia, the Bourguiba regime tolerated an opposition press, but this press was dependent on the government’s goodwill, as was the case in Morocco. Journalists often came up against censorship and a legisla­tion which repressed independent criticism in the name of the protection of public order.

From 1960 to 1980 the whole region suffered from a lack of press freedom, with the exception of Lebanon. The Lebanese exception is due to the complexity of the political and social composition of the country. Lebanese journalists basked in a freedom of expression which had no equivalent in the region and their journalism was of a very high tech­nical quality. But the civil war in 1975 forced the press and these journalists into exile in Europe and the United States. The Gulf petrol boom also drew many of these journalists, who took up positions in new newspapers created thanks to the wealth generated by petrol. Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian journalists also exploited this goldmine. Unfortunately, these journalists were hemmed in by the traditionalist system governing the countries concerned. The downside of the high salaries they earned was the rigid censorship they had to work under.

The only journalists who could write in all freedom were those who had set up base in Europe, but even their freedom was only a provisional one: the money generated by the petrol bought out most of these journalists. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya all invested in the expatriate press in order to rally support for their power and ally themselves to the most eminent and credible pens in the Arab world. Iraq and Libya founded reviews; the Saudi Arabians funded dailies. Journalists fell over themselves to offer their services to the rich and draw on the benefits due to them, such as cars, houses, or gold watches. A critical press was confined to the limits of the Arab community abroad. Other more power­ful dailies and reviews had a regional audience that was much more significant.

The end of the 1980s, which coincided with the end of the Cold War and the lifting of the communist yoke from Eastern European countries, made its mark on more than one country in the region. The three most significant events were the Gulf War, the rise of a politicised Islam and the development of a democratic process in several countries, in particular Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen.

The Gulf War brought about by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait opened a new chapter in the history of the media in the region. The Gulf states, seeing the impact that CNN had on an international scale, grasped the strategic importance of satellite television in times of conflict. Several governments, in particular Saudi Arabia, encouraged their rich compatriots to invest in the installation of satellite television channels in Europe. MBC, ORBIT, ART were able to build their hege­monies and set up thrones under the Arab sky. Other countries followed suit by launching their own national channels. Only Al-Jazeera, financed by the Qatar government, dared to jostle traditions and political taboos by programmes open to all opinions, even the most hostile to established Arab regimes. Al-Jazeera was heavily criticised by governments who did not welcome the space given to their political opponents.

The Gulf War also brought about the destruction of the media infrastructure belonging to the regime of Saddam Hussein. The economic embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council - which applied to paper, pens, computers, printing presses and anything to do with the printing of newspapers - had a disastrous effect on journalists in Iraq. Many lost their job and had to sell off their books or personal belongings in order to survive.

Other countries were not so unfortunate as Iraq. On the contrary, the 1990s stood out for development in civil society, a society animated by political parties, organisations for human rights and cultural and artistic associations - all of which called for freedom of expression, association and a wider and fairer participation in the management of public affairs.

Popular pressure was greatest in Algeria, which brought about the explosion of the political system and the liberalisation of the press. New legislative elections were on the verge of setting the Islamists up in power. The army, under the pretext of saving a young democracy, cancelled elections and seized power. The civil war which followed brought about more than 100,000 deaths, among which 60 journalists were assassinated by armed Islamist factions or by paramilitary groups supported by the army in power.

The democratic failure in Algeria is not unique to the Arab world. Other openings towards democracy also failed in many Arab countries. The official reasoning put forward by the governments for the suppression of extremist Islamic move­ments is the danger that these movements constitute for democracy. Morocco is the only country in the Arab world which is slowly advancing towards the construction of a rule of law. In other countries, journalists continue to be impri­soned or tortured. More than 15 journalists continue to suffer in jails in Syria, Tunisia, Kuwait or Iraq. All the freedoms to be found in the Arab world are not enough for one single journalist, and if an Arab journalist wants to savour his freedom of expression, he must start by defending the freedom of others.

Said Essoulami, Executive Director of the Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CMF MENA). Mr Essoulami, who is a Moroccan and British national, previously worked at ARTICLE 19 where he developed and headed the Middle East programme. He has written extensively on media freedom issues in the MENA region, and conceived and initiated the Euro-Med Human Rights Network which is made up of more than 60 human rights NGOs from Europe and the Mediterranean.

Cartoonist: Michel Cambon