Around this time every year, those in the media await the results of an annual report, issued by the media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RWB). In this report, RWP ranks countries in accordance to the freedom enjoyed by their domestic media outlets. To obtain a high position on this index, as Arab journalists, would almost be equivalent to the dream of winning the elusive FIFA World Cup.
Yet all Arab countries were ranked in the second half of the index, which encompasses 178 countries worldwide. This ranking is hardly surprising; and no one can object, as it represents our true position. Though the restriction placed on our media in the Arab world is a common denominator, some of us experience less freedom than the others.
Countries with the coldest climates also appear to enjoy the widest margin of press freedom. Finland topped the index, followed by Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. At the bottom of the list came warmer countries such as Eritrea, which not only illegally acquires broadcasting rights for sports and feature films, but also imprisons its journalists for publishing news items that do not appeal to President Isaias Afewerki, no matter how trivial they may be.
Lebanon was ranked in 78th place, after Guatemala, Kenya and Benin, which despite their unsavoury political systems; enjoy greater media freedom than us. Despite its low global position, RWP recognized Lebanon as the highest ranking Arab country on the index. It goes without saying that the press freedom margin in Lebanon is far wider than in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. However, I believe it is wrong to rank Lebanon almost twice as highly as countries like Morocco and Iraq.
In Lebanon, you cannot draw a single strip cartoon depicting Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, or any of his followers. You cannot screen a film about Jesus Christ, if it does not appeal to the Church. Furthermore, it would be madness to think of criticizing anything related to the history of Islam. Media freedom in Lebanon is dependent on the political camp you belong to. For example, if you are a member of the March 8 Alliance, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, or a supporter of General Aoun, then you are able to criticize at will. However, if you belong to the March 14 Alliance, like Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, then all you can do is offer more apologizes.
Reporters Without Borders do not incorporate the factor of ‘fear’ as part of their measurement, but rather they collate the number of banned articles, confiscated newspapers, blocked websites and killed reporters. Iraq has the largest number of press fatalities, yet in reality it enjoys a much wider margin of press freedom than Lebanon. In Iraq, just like Lebanon, you can criticize the government but [in Lebanon] you will have to be very cautious when dealing with the issue of armed militias.
In Morocco, an amazing margin of press freedom exists, despite the fact that a newspaper has been reprimanded, and some news items have been censored, during the current year. Egypt too enjoys a relatively acceptable margin of press freedom, or to be more accurate, it is becoming both difficult and expensive to employ brutal methods of silencing journalists. This is apparent considering that the Egyptian opposition have been outspoken in their claim that the purchase of al-Dustour newspaper [completed by Sayed Badawi, head of the Egyptian Wafd party in August 2010], was a deliberate scheme to remove Ibrahim Eissa from the editor-in-chief post.
Despite continuing restrictions on the freedom of the press in Egypt, it is not true that press freedom in the UAE, Oman, and Qatar, is greater than that permitted in Egypt, which has been ranked far behind the aforementioned Gulf States on the RWB index. This is an absurd idea to anyone familiar with what is written and broadcast in the Gulf.
Kuwait is the only exception in the Gulf region. It finished nine places behind Lebanon, making it the second-highest Arab country on the Press Freedom index. Kuwait deserves recognition because it allows considerably more freedom than the rest of the Arab countries. However, we must admit that this ‘freedom’ in Kuwait is incomplete, just as with Lebanon. Kuwait’s government is inclined toward appeasing extremist groups, by banning books that do not appeal to them. It also prosecutes newspapers, TV stations and internet websites, as well as stripping dissidents of their Kuwaiti citizenship. As a result, Kuwait was ranked lower than countries such as Serbia and Panama, yet it still came higher than the rest of the Arab region, bar Lebanon.