Walking A Tightrope


Available in print at Heinrich Boell Foundation - Middle East Office in Beirut

News Media & Freedom of Expression in the Middle East

Over the past 15 years, the Arab World1 has witnessed the rapid development of its news media, raising standards of reporting as well as expectations. Satellite news channels have successfully breached national boundaries and have stirred public debate, challenged censorship and prompted critical reflection. Audiences across the region and in the diaspora have been actively participating in talk shows, and female anchors and hosts provide new role models for women in the region.

These channels have also managed to reverse the traditional flow of news from Western media to the region. In 1990, Arab viewers turned to CNN for live coverage, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and coalition forces led by the USrolled back the invasion. When a US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, it was Western media that sought coverage from their Arab counterparts.

With the outbreak of what has become known as the "Arab Spring," the media landscape is again in a heightened state of flux, as new questions arise: Have Facebook, Twitter and YouTube taken over, or do satellite television channels still enjoy the lion’s share of audiences? Are accurate figures on who is influencing whom attainable, at a time when traditional media are struggling to remain financially afloat - in the Arab World and beyond?

What about citizen journalists armed with mobile phones, small digital devices, Internet connections and other means of communication, who are competing to disseminate their messages of anger, hope, fear, defiance, demands for freedom and a better life, while their leaders cling to power and insist on squashing all forms of dissent?

With the spread of revolts across the region, and the increasing reliance on social media and citizen journalism to disseminate new narratives, it is important to keep track of this dynamic process that has already contributed to fundamental changes in the psyches of Arab people, who for the first time in decades have broken the barrier of fear and begun demanding their rights at any cost.

There is an ongoing debate on how far the Arab media have been, and will be, able to contribute to social and political change. The Arab "media revolution" has indeed transformed the sector, but has not necessarily diminished efforts to control these new channels of communication. A number of taboo topics continue to inflame the social and political arena. Media landscapes across different countries remain fairly uneven, as do political circumstances and social, economic, and intellectual environments. Yet, there are structural commonalities in the limits to freedom of expression, which deserve closer attention because they reflect the broader issue of rights and constraints in the region.

Although transnational media have rapidly expanded, Arab governments have not adequately responded to the quest for freedom of expression. They have recognized the threat as well as the financial potential of such media, often resulting in an ambivalent attitude and contradictory policies of restricting media, while opening new spaces of freedom. The current media sector embodies many of the paradoxes prevalent in the region.

In the following overview, an update of a report originally published in 2004, the Heinrich Böll Foundation seeks to contribute to a better understanding of the "status quo": 

This report reviews the situation in which media operate in the Middle East, specifically in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and this time also including a short section on Tunisia, where the first spark of the uprisings began. It draws from a survey of written sources, including literature, press articles, online resources and reports of civil society organizations, as well as some interviews. No attempts have been made to verify the information contained in the secondary data sources. The authors did not intend to present a scientific study, but to provide introductory information on Arab media (print, radio, television, and the Internet) to activists, researchers, civil society organizations, donors, or individuals interested to engage in the field.

Part 1 explores the historical development of the media in the region, outlines their structural environment, and probes practices of censorship and self-censorship.

Part 2 looks into those developments of the past decades that have affected the monopoly on information by states and the access to information on the part of the public.

Part 3 critically examines the function of guidelines for good journalistic practices in the region, and provides some samples of codes of ethics.

Part 4 presents an overview of the recent situation of the media and freedom of expression in the region and provides some historical background. In general, this part seeks to survey the existing media, including the press, radio and television, the Internet, as well as media legislation in the individual countries. Due to specific local circumstances, some of the country sections are however structured in a slightly different manner.

Part 5 compiles select training opportunities for journalists, as well as organizations and projects that are committed to networking, monitoring, advocacy and legal aid.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation, which has been dealing with media issues in the region for years, presents this report as part of a larger objective: to create a framework for meaningful debate on the future role of Arab media within the regional discourse about reform and democratic change.


About The Authors

Layla Al-Zubaidi was director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Middle East Office in Beirut from 2006 to 2012 and now heads the Southern Africa Office in Cape Town. She authored the first version of this report, published in 2004.

Magda Abu-Fadil is a Lebanese-American journalist, media trainer, and director of Media Unlimited, based in Lebanon.

Susanne Fischer is a German journalist, media trainer, and Middle East program manager for the International Institute for War and Peace Reporting, based in Beirut.

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