Press Freedom Must Continue to Improve in the Middle East and North Africa | Freedom House

Press Freedom Must Continue to Improve in the Middle East and North Africa

New York

Despite overall improvements in press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa over the last several years, the region continues to rank the lowest for press freedoms in the world, according to a major study released today by Freedom House.  However, there are a number of countries that are close to an upgrade from Not Free to Partly Free status, if a few key reforms are implemented.

Generally, media in the region remain constrained by extremely restrictive legal environments in most countries.  Most problematic to media freedom are the laws criminalizing libel and defamation and prohibiting any insult to monarchs and other rulers, as well as emergency legislation that remains in place which hampers the ability of journalists to write freely. In a positive trend, however, the continued spread and influence of pan-Arab satellite television networks has led to greater openness in the media environment throughout the region.  Four countries--Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt--have seen improvements since 2004 and are only one point away from being ranked as Partly Free.

"Improvements in the region have been due to the impact of new media as well as the courage of individual journalists and their editors," said Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House. "The governments must do their part to implement the necessary reforms to guarantee freedom of expression," she continued.

Each country in the region faces specific challenges to improved press freedom. Algeria's constitution guarantees freedom of expression but the country's repressive laws, which are regularly used to intimidate and in some cases imprison journalists, are evidence that these guarantees are not reflected in practice. The legal harassment of journalists should end to ensure that they are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

According to the Moroccan press law, which was amended in 2002, it is illegal to criticize Islam, the king and the royal family, or to publish anything referring to an independent Western Sahara. The Moroccan government should follow through on its pledge to reform the press law and stop imprisoning people for press-related cases.  Authorities should allow the judiciary to operate independently, and should end the current court practice of imposing financially crippling punishments on newspapers and other publications in defamation cases.

In Jordan, articles of the penal and press codes restrict criticism of the royal family, the National Assembly, public officials and the armed forces, as well as any speech that might harm Jordan's foreign relations.  These laws should be repealed.  The 1998 Jordan Press Association (JPA) law should be amended to remove the requirement that journalists be members of the JPA. The JPA's vaguely worded bylaws, including provisions requiring members to practice journalism "within the framework of its moral, national, and patriotic responsibility," and to swear an oath of loyalty to the king, invite abuse.  The government should also issue clear directives to security forces not to interfere with newspaper printers.

In Egypt, although journalists cross the "red-lines" that previously circumscribed the press with increasingly regularity, press freedom continues to suffer from repressive laws and extralegal intimidation of journalists.  The government should amend the press law to contain positive guarantees to allow journalists to exercise their right to free expression, and should remove the requirement that editors of newspapers of which the government owns a share be vetted by State Security.  The Egyptian government should also repeal articles of Egypt's Penal Code, which criminalize criticism of the President of the Republic or the spread of information that may "disturb public security," call for "changing the basic principles of the constitution," or "cause harm and damage to public security." 

The report's rankings, charts and country narratives are available online.

Freedom House, an independent non-governmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has monitored press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa since 1980.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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