Many countries accused of suppression

BAGHDAD — The Washington-based Human Rights Watch doesn’t have very much good to say about freedom of expression in the Middle East.

In its annual report published Jan. 31, Human Rights Watch accuses most of the countries in the region of stifling blogs, arresting journalists, blocking satellite broadcasts and instituting strict censorship.

Egypt and Iran in particular are pointed to in the report.

In Egypt, the “peaceful critics” jailed by the government during 2007, the report says, include Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, a blogger who received a four-year sentence for criticizing Islam and President Hosni Mubarak.

Al-Jazeera journalist Huwaida Taha Mitwalli, an Egyptian national, was sentenced to six months in prison as a result of a docu she made about torture in Egypt. Mitwalli is appealing the sentence.

Four newspaper editors were also sentenced to one-year jail terms each on charges of publishing “with malicious intent, false news, statements or rumors likely to disturb public order.”

In Iran, “authorities systematically suppress freedom of expression and opinion by imprisoning journalists and editors and strictly controlling publishing and academic freedom,” the report says.

“The few independent dailies that remain heavily self-censor.”

Human Rights Watch said the Iranian authorities also target student and Internet journalists in an attempt to stop the independent dissemination of news and information.

In Saudi Arabia, according to the rights group, freedom to voice criticism or openly discuss controversial ideas in the media and Internet is limited.

The report cites the government closure of a website that spotlighted the practices of the religious police and another that focused on human rights.

The UAE government, too, “has imprisoned and punished journalists for expressing views critical of the government.”

The report said Mohammad Rashed al-Shehhi, the owner of a popular website, was sentenced to a year in jail for defamation of a public official. He was later ordered released by Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad.

In Jordan, criticisms of the king, government officials, and the intelligence forces are strictly taboo and carry serious penalties, it said.

Two activists who separately posted critical articles on the Internet were jailed — one for two years and one for 18 months.

“Since December 2006 parliamentarians or policemen have assaulted journalists on four occasions, and intelligence forces twice pre-censored media content, confiscating an Al-Jazeera interview with Jordan’s Prince Hassan in April and in May stopping the weekly al-Majd’s publication of a plan to aid Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas,” the report said.

Bahrain, too, tends to target the messenger, and in the first nine months of 2007, authorities referred the cases of 15 journalists to the public prosecutor, in most instances for alleged defamation of a government official or department.

Bahrain’s sole residential Internet service provider, Batelco, is government-owned, while the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said in November that the authorities were blocking 23 discussion forums and other websites, including its own.

Libya, meanwhile, “severely” curtails freedom of expression.

“Negative comments about al-Qadhafi are strictly punished and self-censorship is rife. Uncensored news is available via satellite television and Libyan websites based abroad, which the government occasionally blocks.”

Human Rights Watch does not report on every country and for some it focuses more on human rights abuses and does not specifically mention curtailment of freedom of speech.

The Israel/Palestinian territories section, for example, focuses almost entirely on the intensified humanitarian crisis in Gaza as a result of the Israel-led blockade and internal Palestinian fighting as well as on human rights abuses not only by the Israeli government but also by the Palestinian authorities.

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