National Press Club

Freedom of the Press panel explores 'Arab Spring' aftermath

February 15, 2012 | By John M. Donnelly |

The revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have brought the promise of more open and accountable governments and societies but that outlook has dimmed, as autocratic regimes in the region have responded to the so-called “Arab Spring” by clamping down hard on reporters and citizens communicating on the web, a panel of experts said a National Press Club Freedom of the Press event Feb. 14.

“Wait a few more years before you call it ‘spring,’” said a skeptical Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic, one of the panelists.

As regimes have felt threatened by their own people’s demands, their security personnel have beaten, detained, spied on and even killed reporters. They have blocked communications via phone, satellite TV and the Internet. They have conducted surveillance of the computer activities of reporters and citizens alike.

In very few Mideast countries can the press be called free and the recent crackdown has made things worse. Nada Alwadi who was one of many Bahraini reporters detained on trumped up charges in the last year, said: “The whole experience was to teach me a lesson as a Bahraini citizen: to behave.”

Social media filled the vacuum where a strong press should be, the panelists said. When traditional news coverage was blocked, Twitter and Facebook carried the news, though the standards were spotty. The region had more than 36 million Facebook users in 2011, double the year before, said Jeffrey Ghannam He is a lawyer, journalist and media consultant who has just written a study of social media during this period of regional unrest for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance.

When the Egyptian government cut off al Jazeera’s satellite feed and torched one of their offices, the station turned to Skype and YouTube to show demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Foukara said.

The proliferation of news sources —- traditional and non-traditional -— has been exciting, but there is still a dearth of trained professional journalists and not much of a history of robust reporting or laws protecting press freedom and open government, members of the panel said. Instead, as Clare Morgana Gillis put it, there have been “truncated traditions of political self-expression.” Gillis is a U.S. freelance reporter who was imprisoned last year in Libya.

Several panelists pointed out that keeping ones journalistic objectivity in the midst of brutality is not easy.

“In repressive regimes, journalism has become a form of activism,” said Courtney Radsch, a former reporter with al Arabiya who is now program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House.

The event, “Repression of Expression in the Mideast,” was sponsored by the Club’s Press Freedom Committee, chaired by John M. Donnelly of Congressional Quarterly. The panel assessed progress in the Mideast just over a year after the uprisings began.

The discussion was moderated by Frank Smyth, founder and executive director of the private firm Global Journalist Security and senior advisor for journalist security at the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.

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