2nd Arab Free Press Forum puts the usual suspects on trial

There was little to rejoice about at the 2nd Arab Free Press Forum that was held in Beirut this week. Arab governments are still stifling press freedom wherever they can find it; some even prevented their citizens from attending the conference.
By Layal Abdo
The 2nd Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut. ©S.M / arabimages.com
The 2nd Arab Free Press Forum began on Sunday with the presentation of the 2nd Gebran Tueni award. © S.M. / arabimages.com

BEIRUT, Dec. 10, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - In most Middle Eastern and North African states, both the media and its message are state-controlled. Many media are state-owned. Most governments have extensive and expensive programs designed to block satellite television and a wide range of Internet websites. Arab governments are generally not very keen of freedom of the speech.

This - not surprisingly - was the main conclusion of the 2nd Arab Free Press Forum, organized by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) in association with Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper in Beirut on December 9-10.

Yesterday, WAN issued a statement to condemn the fact that some of the delegates weren't able to attend the conference.

"Passports have not been renewed, previously acceptable travel documents have been disputed at the last moment, and the airlines have prevented passengers from boarding," WAN said in a statement.

The first session on Sunday was entirely dedicated to North Africa. Under the title 'Backsliders and Usual Suspects - the Latest Government Policies that Affect the Press', three journalists from Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania tried to explain how they deal with government censorship and the abusive use of the law against the independent press.

Don't mention the king

Presenting the case of the Moroccan newspaper Tel Quel, editor in chief Ahmed Benchemsi told the conference how he was personally jailed many times without really being told the reason. His newspaper was taken out of circulation several times and was fined important sums of money for a variety of accusations from "offense against the king" to "publication of mistaken information."

"Sometimes the interaction between the state and the Islamists puts us journalists in a very uncomfortable position. For example, because of the publication of an overview of popular jokes in my newspaper, we faced accusations of blasphemy", Benchemsi said.

There is much talk of reform in Morocco, and a new generation of journalists is pushing the limits on what can be discussed, said Benchemsi. But, in fact, nothing much has changed.

Journalists continue to pay the price for violating a press law that can impose up to five years in prison for "inappropriate" reporting on Islam, the monarchy or about the King himself. In fact, newspapers can't even write "the King" without writing "His Majesty" or "His Highness".  Benchemsi was scolded for even referring to him as a human being.

"The margin for maneuvering for journalists is not increasing," he concluded.

Mauritania, apparently, is the worst off. The independent press there lives in constant dread of the infamous Article 11 of the press code, which stipulates that "the interior minister can, by decree, ban the circulation, distribution or sale of newspapers [...] which undermine the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state."

"We feel very weak and useless when we compare our press freedom to the West," said Abdel Vetah Abeidna, editor in chief of Al-Aqsa newspaper. Abeidna has been arrested, abused, pursued and jailed for his opinions against the military takeover in Mauritania. “After I proved the implication of some members of the government in a drugs deal, they attempted to assassinate me”, he said.

A family affair

In Tunisia, the situation is just as discouraging. As Omar Mestiri, editor in chief of Kalima, an online magazine, testified: "The press in our country is quite simply in the hands of the government."

Journalists in Tunisia aren't arrested for their professional activities, Mestiri explained, but for entirely different reasons such as violating customs laws or signing a check without sufficient funds.

"They're never sentenced for their work, they're sentenced for other matters," said Mestiri. He has a list of 250 examples of laws being used inappropriately to punish journalists for their work.

While the Tunisian constitution respects journalism in principle, "all of this is theoretical and very nice, but when we look at the practical, it's very different," said Mr Mestiri.

Kalima has applied four times for a license to publish a paper version of their paper. It's been waiting for eight years, without ever receiving the license. In fact, only one independent magazine has been licensed in the past 20 years. Similar problems exist for TV and radio.

"There are conditions for getting frequencies that are limited to the government," Mestiri said. Three new television licenses have been issued to the family of the president, making media a "family business" in Tunisia.