by William Fisher
In the aftermath of the Annapolis peace conference, foreign policy analysts and human rights advocates are finding considerable irony in Israel’s Arab neighbors pressing for freedom for Palestinians while their own citizens continue carry a heavy burden of unrelenting political repression.
Most of those representing Middle East and North African nations at the conference appear to endorse the idea of a “two-state solution” to the decades-old conflict: a separate and contiguous Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.
But Arab delegates to Annapolis — including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen – have had little to say about the nature of the state that may emerge from negotiations set to begin soon between Israel and the Palestinians.
Many of these observers see the absence of press freedom as emblematic of a broader freedom deficit in most of the Arab countries represented at Annapolis. In most Middle East and North African states, both the media and its messages are state-controlled. Many are state-owned. All have extensive and expensive programs designed to block satellite television and a wide range of Internet websites.
Critics point to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as among the worst offenders. Both countries are seen as close allies of the U.S. The Saudi Kingdom is the source of much of the oil consumed by Americans. And Egypt is second only to Israel in the amount of U.S. aid it receives each year – its reward for making peace with Israel in 1979.
In Egypt – which has lived under draconian “emergency laws” for more than 25 years – President Hosni Mubarak promised in 2006 a long-delayed press law reform designed to give journalists more freedom by decriminalizing media offences. But, according to Reporters Without Borders (FWB), a journalism advocacy organization, the new law “turned out to be just a show.” It says, “The media were quickly disillusioned by the many restrictions on their activities contained in the amendments to it. At least seven journalists were arrested during the year and dozens threatened or physically attacked.”
The group says Egyptian journalists “can now be jailed for up to five years for ‘publishing false news’, defaming the president or foreign heads of state or ‘undermining national institutions’ such as parliament and the armed forces.” TV and print journalists attempting to cover public events are routinely harassed, arrested, threatened or beaten.
The Mubarak regime also continues its crackdown on Internet freedom. Hundreds of websites have been blocked, and at least seven cyber-dissidents jailed. The courts ruled that authorities could block, suspend or shut down websites considered a threat to “national security.” A number of bloggers have been jailed. One was detained for posting criticism of Islam and is still in prison. Another was jailed for four years after he used his weblog to criticize the country’s top Islamic institution, al-Azhar university, and President Mubarak, whom he called a dictator.
Saudi Arabia also remains high on the list of countries that have aggressively cracked down on press freedom. The Saudi regime maintains very tight control of all news and self-censorship is pervasive. According to RWB, “Enterprising journalists pay dearly for the slightest criticism of the authorities or the policies of ‘brother Arab’ countries. The tame local media content means most Saudis get their news and information from foreign TV stations and the Internet.”
The Al-Jazeera TV channel is banned and was not allowed to cover the annual pilgrimage to Mecca for the fifth consecutive year. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia also blocks more than a thousand Internet websites.
Two journalists were dismissed for going beyond the limits set by the dominant ultra-conservative religious authorities. A writer for a government daily, Arab News, was dismissed for writing about the atrocities perpetrated by Indonesia,a Muslim country, during its 1975-99 occupation of East Timor. The editor of another government daily, Al Watan, was forced to resign as the paper’s editor after reporting that US troops were using the country’s military bases. The privately-owned daily Shams was closed for a month and its editor dismissed for reprinting some of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed first carried by a Danish paper in 2005.
Blogs are also becoming a growing problem for Saudi censors, who maintain a “blacklist” said to contain hundreds of personal websites. In 2005, authorities tried to completely bar access to the country’s main blog-tool, blogger.com, but gave up after only a few days because of the ubiquity of the blogosphere. Today, government censors blogs they object to.
In the Reporters Without Borders annual survey of press freedom, Egypt ranked 146th and Saudi Arabia 147th, out of a total of 169 countries worldwide. Israel, including the occupied territories, ranked 44th.
Human rights groups have also been highly critical of Middle Eastern and North African governments for imposing press restrictions, as well as for other numerous and widespread human rights abuses.
Looking forward to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations emerging from the Annapolis conference, Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA is urging both sides to respect the basic human rights of the other. She told us, “The parties should agree to the deployment of international human rights monitors in Israel and the Occupied Territories, with a mandate to monitor and report publicly on compliance and on violations by either party of their commitments under international human rights and humanitarian law.”
But given the consistently flawed human rights records of Israel’s neighbors, critics wonder how eager any of the Annapolis delegates will be to endorse this proposal.
This is the question raised by the Egyptian-born journalist and lecturer Mona Eltahawi, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the American University in Cairo,who has lived in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
She told us, “When I was a Jerusalem-based Reuters correspondent in 1998, many Palestinians would tell me they wanted a future Palestinian state to be like Israel. They meant an open and democratic country. I thought it was ironic that their ‘role model’ state was the one occupying them.”
Ms. Eltahawy, who is a contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” series, charged that the late Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials “modeled a nascent Palestinian state on Egypt, Jordan and other repressive Arab neighbors. Arafat introduced military trials and Palestinians were horrified to discover that the Palestinian Authority, and not just Israel, also detained and tortured Palestinians with often little reason. I would hear from Palestinians that it was worse for them when their fellow Palestinians were the ones doing the torture.”
She added, “After years of struggle and sacrifice for Palestine, Palestinians deserve a free and democratic state. I hope they insist it be nothing like the Arab states that have fought several wars with Israel ostensibly in the name of such a Palestinian state.”