Press freedom lacking in Middle East

Iraq, Syria, others said to lack free expression

BAGHDAD — Free expression continues to be no more than a dream in six Middle East countries, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in its newly published annual World Press Freedom Index. 

The Paris-based group listed Iraq (158th), Syria (159th), Libya (160th), Saudi Arabia (161st), the Palestinian territories (163rd) and Iran (166th) as near the bottom of the 173-country index once again.

“Journalists are subjected to relentless censorship and in some cases incredible violence in these countries,” it said in the report.

The Palestinian territories have never before fallen so far in a year. The power struggle between the main factions has taken a disastrous toll on press freedom.

“The Israeli military’s responsibility for the death of a Palestinian cameraman employed by Reuters in April and the immunity granted to the soldier who fired the fatal shell account for Israel’s fall (149th),” it said.

Lebanon (66th), however, rose 30 places “as no journalist was on the list of victims of this year’s bombings.”

The bottom three rungs, the report said, are again occupied by the “infernal trio” of Turkmenistan (171st), North Korea (172nd) and Eritrea (173rd).

It said European countries rated high in the index, which covers the 12 months since Sept. 1, 2008.

Aside from New Zealand and Canada, the first 20 positions are held by European countries. Iceland, Luxembourg and Norway jointly occupy the top slot, followed by Estonia, Finland and Ireland who are joint second.

“Countries that have become embroiled in very violent conflicts after failing to resolve serious political problems, such as Iraq (158th), Pakistan (152nd), Afghanistan (156th) and Somalia (153rd), continue to be highly dangerous ‘black zones’ for the press, places where journalists are targets for murder, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest or death threats every day,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“They may come under fire from the parties at war. They may be accused of taking sides. Any excuse will do to get rid of ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘spies.’

“Such is the case in the Palestinian territories (163rd), especially the Gaza Strip, where the situation got much worse after Hamas seized power.”

Being a journalist in China (167th), Iran (166th), Uzbekistan (162nd) and Zimbabwe (151st) “is a high-risk exercise involving endless frustration and constant police and judicial harassment,” the report said.

The highest-ranked Middle Eastern country was Kuwait at 61 followed by Lebanon at 66 and the United Arab Emirates at 69.

The U.S. meanwhile ranked way down the list at 119th.

“Destabilized and on the defensive, the leading democracies are gradually eroding the space for freedoms,” the report said, adding it is no longer economic prosperity but peace that guarantees press freedom.

The report warned that the use of Internet filtering is “growing by the year,” and the most repressive governments do not hesitate to jail bloggers.

“While China still leads the ‘Internet black hole’ ranking worldwide, deploying considerable technical resources to control Internet users, Syria (159th) is the Middle East champion in cyber-repression. Internet surveillance is so thorough there that even the mildest criticism posted online is sooner or later followed by arrest.

“In Egypt (146th), demonstrations launched online shook the capital and alarmed the government, which now regards every Internet user as a potential danger.”

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