The 'only way forward' for media freedom

As policymakers and journalists meet this week in London, former Middle East correspondent Kareem Shaheen explains why supporting independent media is the key to press freedom in that region — and to democracy everywhere.

By: /
July 9, 2019
People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir
Kareem Shaheen

Montreal-based journalist and former Middle East correspondent

“Aren’t you afraid we might kidnap you?”

I had settled in for a long drive to a town in Syria called Khan Sheikhoun. It was April 6, 2017, two days after one of the deadliest chemical attacks of the war. Syrian government forces struck at dawn using sarin gas, killing more than 80 people, and followed up the initial attack with a bombardment of the local hospital that was treating the victims.

The prospect of military intervention by the United States against the Assad regime appeared imminent (the following day, American warships fired a series of cruise missiles at the Syrian military airport where the chemical attack originated). Already, pro-government social media accounts were claiming the attack was a fabrication, and Russia, which had intervened in the war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, claimed the government had bombed a chemical weapons stockpile that leaked and poisoned civilians.

I was working at the time for The Guardian as a correspondent covering the Middle East and Turkey. After obtaining guarantees of protection from Ahrar al-Sham, then one of the most powerful rebel militias in Syria, I crossed the Turkish border and arrived at a safe house belonging to the group. Their fighters escorted me to the site of the attack, deep in opposition-controlled territory. Few foreign journalists had been to the area, called Idlib province, in years, due to the growing power of al-Qaida’s affiliate in the area. Journalists had been kidnapped inside the country and executed in videos published by ISIS in 2014.

Idlib’s scenery is a deep, verdant green, its earth cinnamon-coloured. Sometimes we drove along roads lined with cherry and olive trees. Other times the view was of pockmarked buildings, some with caved-in roofs, markers of a war that had claimed so many Syrian lives that the United Nations had simply stopped counting them.

The militant who asked me if I was afraid of being kidnapped was making a joke.

“I’m Egyptian, nobody will pay my ransom,” I replied.

We all laughed. It was true. It’s not that an Arab journalist’s life is inherently worthless. Arab lives in general are.

I’ve often replayed this conversation in my head, and thought of it again last month when new details emerged of the execution of the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October. Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post and had been one of the Arab world’s most prominent journalists, was suffocated to death and then dismembered by a squad of intelligence operatives and butchers from Riyadh while attempting to obtain a routine civil status document that would have allowed him to marry his fiancée in Turkey (I had procured a similar document when I was getting married to my fiancée in Istanbul, but I had to travel back to Egypt to get it).

For some reason, the routineness of his interaction with the state bureaucracy that led to his death is something that embedded itself in my mind, as though exemplifying the banality of the evil perpetrated by Arab regimes and the contempt they hold for their citizens’ lives.

There was of course nothing banal about the fresh details of Khashoggi’s killing in last month’s UN report, which also offered new evidence that it was premeditated. The Saudi officials accused of carrying out the assassination are ostensibly under trial, but nobody has been held to account yet.

Khashoggi is not the only journalist who was killed in the Middle East in 2018, but his case drew more media attention for several reasons, including the prominence of his platform as a Washington Post columnist, the flagrant and international nature of his assassination, the diplomatic fallout due to it occurring in a foreign embassy, and the high profile of the man thought to be behind it, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

Despite the close scrutiny of the case and the damaging revelations that emerged in the days and weeks after the killing, I never thought any real accountability would result from the exposure. Nobody has been held to account for any big crimes in the Middle East. Of course they were going to get away with it. As an Arab journalist, my reaction went in the opposite direction, as more chilling details trickled out. If they could do it to somebody that famous, on foreign soil in a consulate, then they could do it to anybody.

"If they could do it to somebody that famous, on foreign soil in a consulate, then they could do it to anybody."

In a nutshell, this impunity is the primary challenge facing independent Arab media today. This impunity is widespread as restrictions, detentions and general attacks against journalists continue worldwide, egged on by the global retreat of liberal values and with it trust in the media. But I am writing about the situation in the Middle East for two reasons: first, I’m an Arab journalist myself, so it is what I know, and second, ongoing wars, oppression and regional tensions have made the Middle East one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist today, particularly for local journalists.

In his last column, published posthumously, Khashoggi called for the founding of an independent Arab media platform to challenge the modern version of the Iron Curtain that Arab regimes have imposed, and which arrested the crucial debates we need to have about the future of our societies.

He said: “Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”

Support for independent Arab media will be a crucial element of the upcoming Global Conference for Media Freedom, taking place in London this week and jointly organized by Canada and the United Kingdom as part of a broad agenda to support free expression. (Khashoggi’s murder, as well as the imprisonment of Reuters journalists who reported on ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Myanmar, were reportedly two key drivers for Canada’s involvement in launching the conference, and the UN investigator who worked on the Khashoggi case reportedly plans to raise the issue of barring Saudi Arabia from hosting the next G20 gathering in a meeting with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.)

Support for independent media in the Arab world is the only way forward out of the swamp we find ourselves in as a result of the organized state repression that dismantled the gains of the Arab Spring. But without a broader commitment to a rules-based international system that does away with the impunity enjoyed by Arab leaders, both allied with and against the West, we can expect broader and more violent repression of critical voices.

The state of media freedom in the Middle East

The discussion is particularly urgent due to the elimination of public spaces where Arab citizens could express themselves and their opposition to the hegemony of the state. In Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries rocked by the Arab Spring protests, authoritarian leaders or outside powers have curtailed freedom of expression and presided over a retreat in human rights. Protests against the status quo are routinely met with violence. These regimes have championed a counter-narrative that has gained traction due to the destruction they themselves perpetrated in the desire to hold on to power. The “so-called Arab Spring,” they derisively call a pan-Arab movement demanding dignity, freedom and economic and social justice.

As a result, the only safe space for Arabs to express their opinions has become the virtual online space of social media and independent platforms that have popped up to challenge the state’s narrative, and which risk collapsing in the short term due to the absence of sources of revenue.

Let’s look first at the state of media freedom in the Middle East. Three of the top four jailers of journalists in the world are in the region — Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most are imprisoned for anti-state charges like allegedly belonging to a terrorist group or spreading “fake news,” a term popularized by US President Donald Trump and subsequently employed around the world by autocrats, a reality that does not seem to dent his pride in coining it.

In the last year and a half, out of 63 journalists killed worldwide, nearly a third were from the Middle East, mostly Syria and Yemen. I’ve spoken to journalists who’ve been tortured due to their work uncovering corruption or documenting human rights abuses.

Bodily harm is not the only threat they contend with. In Turkey, where I was based and reported on attacks on press freedom, journalists have frequently been detained and put on trial for simply reporting on stories like the Paradise Papers that uncovered corruption in the country. They have also had their press passes revoked, preventing them from doing their job, and many have been fired for offending the government. Many newspapers have had their boards of directors taken over by government loyalists, or faced the threat of bankruptcy because the government slapped them with large tax fines or lured away advertisers who relied on contracts from the authorities.

And this is in a democracy with relatively free and fair elections. In autocratic states in the region, it is common to have stories killed, vetoed or retracted as a result of government pressure.

All these factors contribute to a more insidious form of state control — self-censorship. Local journalists who put their name to controversial stories in the region risk their livelihoods, mental well-being and even their lives in order to write a story about, say, human rights abuses that in reality will have zero impact on the government’s behaviour or on whether Western powers continue to sell weapons to that country.

Journalists Yemen
Journalists react during the funeral of their colleagues Wael al-Absi and Taqiaddin al-Hudhaifi, who were killed as they were covering fighting between Houthi fighters and pro-government fighters in Taiz, Yemen, May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

Or take an Arab journalist reporting on regional issues in a polarized Middle East divided along sectarian lines, or the current fault lines between the Gulf states that threaten to throw the region into broader conflict, and to where many Arab families have emigrated in order to earn a living wage. How does a journalist worried about the well-being of their family navigate such a minefield while preserving their ethical integrity?

Local journalists are invariably at much greater risk than foreign correspondents. The latter have an important role to play because they can report on sensitive human rights issues, and usually risk a maximum punishment of being deported (though some Western citizens have been detained for extensive periods of time and used as hostages for political concessions). But the former have to live with the consequences with their work. The lack of protection or cover for their work can often be enough to stifle independent voices, save for the most courageous.

In his last column for Raseef22, an independent Arab media outlet operating out of Beirut (full disclosure: I worked at Raseef22 as an editor), Khashoggi himself said he often urged young people in his country not to listen to the opposition in exile who urged them to agitate against the ruling regime.

“Avoid prison as much as you can, for all you’ll get out of it is a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum and a great deal of depression,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, these voices do exist. The Arab Spring birthed a plethora of independent platforms that are now maturing and coming of age. They are necessary in an era of great disinformation in the region, where critical voices are shunned as loyal to one side or the other in regional tussles, and only the state’s narrative prevails.

These new voices include many Syrian platforms that were borne out of the tumult of the war, such as Enab Baladi, whose correspondents cover the conflict and civilian life in Syria, or Al Jumhuriya, which specializes in longform essays dissecting every aspect of the war. This is in addition to media activist collectives such as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and Sound and Picture, which operated in ISIS-controlled territory and lost local reporters to the brutal terrorist group’s totalitarian apparatus.

In the pan-Arab space, Raseef22 has been publishing voices throughout the region, including Khashoggi, with a focus on human rights, minorities and traditionally underrepresented groups like LGBTI activists. It has survived for six years, despite its primary source of funding being its own publisher.

There is Al Hudood, a satirical news site that rivals The Onion in its black humour, The Arab Tyrant Manual, the investigative journalism network ARIJ, the independent Egyptian site Mada Masr, and many others whose mediums span the written word to video and podcasting.

A roadmap for change

With the diminishing public space for protest in the Middle East, independent media outlets are going to play a vital role in hosting debates around what our societies will look like, what the role of religion is, and how to talk about issues like sexuality, political reform, and what constitutes cultural values.

However, there are many hurdles to overcome. The first is security. These outlets do not have the resources or expertise to protect themselves and their own journalists from threats to their physical safety or digital security, and since they are made up primarily of local journalists they are subject to the same threats and attempts to muzzle free expression that are employed by Middle Eastern autocrats.

This lack of expertise also manifests itself in traditional journalistic aspects like determining newsworthiness, editing capabilities, social media performance, analysis of metrics, and other bread-and-butter aspects of running a modern newsroom.

The second is funding. Most of the new independent media outlets live in the digital space, and face many of the same monetization challenges plaguing old media, including the latest whims of social media algorithm designers. Some have started soliciting voluntary contributions from readers, but such efforts are still in their infancy.

"These websites have to figure out new ways in which to reach audiences that are otherwise only exposed to the government narrative."

As a result, most of these outlets raise funds from philanthropic donors and societies with an interest in developing Middle Eastern free media, as well as media development collectives that solicit money from governments and distribute them as core funding or on a project-by-project basis.

The third key challenge is multi-faceted, but can be summarized as the unconventional problems that arise out of working in the Middle East, which include intimidation and self-censorship, but go beyond that. For instance, Raseef22 was blocked in Saudi Arabia and Egypt due to coverage of the Khashoggi assassination as well as the activities of the intelligence services in Cairo. This meant cutting the site off from the two largest and most lucrative markets in the region.

This, in addition to low internet penetration in rural areas and particularly in countries with persistent conflict, means that these websites have to figure out new ways in which to reach audiences that are otherwise only exposed to the government narrative, such as using messaging services or even by distributing a print product.

It would be impossible to summarize the full scope of possible solutions, but below are some suggestions. There are two aspects to this — one constitutes practical steps that are relatively easy to implement, while the other involves a deeper soul-searching of the West’s relationship with its autocratic allies in the region.

The first obvious solution is to expand core funding for independent media outlets. This can be done either directly or through intermediary organizations that have experience working with media outlets in the region — infrastructure that has been there for years. The latter serves practical as well as ethical reasons, sidestepping the thorny issue of interference by donors and allegations of foreign influence while also providing more robust oversight. Canada is particularly well placed to play a larger role given its focus on human rights, at least as a rhetorical aspect of foreign policy, and its lack of involvement in the region’s conflicts and the absence of a history of colonization in the Middle East.

Second, Western media outlets ought to play an active role in supporting fledgling outfits in the Middle East by transferring expertise, helping train young journalists from the region as well as their editors, and offering insights into analytics and audience analysis as well as monetization efforts, in addition to a broader solidarity in the face of crackdowns against media freedom.

States can also provide practical help in the form of supporting financially and logistically efforts to provide physical and digital security training for journalists from the region, helping them attend training programs in safe environs, as well as providing them safe passage and the option of asylum if they are to escape the iron fist of their states.

Finally, funding for independent media ought to be accompanied by broader support for civil society initiatives hoping to rebuild communities after war. Part of initiating dialogue and debate in Arab societies includes promoting the kind of programmes and conversations around justice, peace-building and economic equality that create a grassroots base that can better cement the gains of protest movements and societal debate.

More broadly, however, promoting media freedom in the Middle East is tied to broader foreign policy approaches to the region.

There must be broad agreement that a free press aligns with Western strategic goals. This ought to be a prima facie truth because of the West’s supposed commitment to democracy and human rights, but that hasn’t prevented decades of kowtowing to Middle Eastern autocrats due to their alleged ability to check Islamist advances and keep the region stable. (The recent G20 conference in Osaka laid bare this reality. Despite the CIA’s conclusion that MBS likely ordered Khashoggi killed, Trump expressed admiration for MBS and described him as a “friend” with whom he was honoured to meet.)

However, free press also prevents the kind of false rhetoric that Arab leaders have used at various times to stoke anti-Western sentiment, sympathy for Islamist and extremist causes and propaganda that stokes communal hatreds and xenophobia.

The transactional view that allows a country to claim the mantle of human rights while selling weapons to another that bombs starving children in Yemen provides a feeling of immunity to the abuser, who can be sure there are no consequences to crimes no matter how heinous, which would render any media freedom initiatives pointless.

Finally, it is worth it for Western societies to examine their own issues of trust in media and the broader polarization in their own societies. This division has allowed the emergence of populists like Trump, who parrots accusations that have long been the domain of brutal tyrants towards the media, like calling them treasonous or enemies of the people. This rhetoric, borne out of disenfranchisement, erodes the protections of journalists worldwide. Western countries cannot promote media freedom abroad while their own citizens lose faith in the institution.

Khashoggi had this slogan on his Twitter profile: “Say what you want, and then go.” He is gone now, but we all have a responsibility to ensure that independent Arab media don’t go anywhere.