London - UK 19/02/2019

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Press freedom in the GCC:  A survey

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Some people may wonder why the team at Muwatin Media Network care so much about journalistic freedoms that they are setting up a special centre to monitor and document the extent of press freedom in the Arab Gulf states.

It’s simply because the absence of press freedom, and of liberties generally, weakens society and weakens people’s intellectual, social and cultural capacities so that they become fearful of everything, and their very humanity is compromised.  Instead of going out into the community and expressing themselves, they turn inwards and take refuge in the language of dissimulation.  And in societies where servility rules and freedom is lacking, all kinds of corruption spread – political, economic, social and moral.

So the health of society and the advancement of freedom are one and the same objective – the two things are inseparable.  Society cannot progress without freedom, and security cannot prevail without freedom, nor indeed be created without freedom.

In the Arab Gulf states, however, there is barely any freedom in the true sense of the word, except in some marginal areas delineated by the ruling authorities.  Certain individuals are permitted to voice their opinions at specific times and places but not at others, while other people are prohibited from doing so at all.  Acceptable opinions are given prominence while unacceptable views are played down, as the authorities engineer freedom in the way that architects design buildings, choosing the appropriate materials, mechanisms, equipment and personnel for each purpose.

This “engineering of freedom” in the Arabian Gulf is a constant process that affects the infrastructure of society.  So how does it create and destroy, delete and retain, design and rebuild relations between citizens and the State?  Each state has its own unique make-up, but what they have in common is that all their rulers graduated from the same Faculty of Engineering.

 

  • by Badr Mubarak al-Nuaimi

 

 

Bahrain:  The government tweets alone

Modern journalism came to Bahrain early on with the publication of Jaridat al-Bahrain in 1949 [1], followed by numerous nationalist, Nasserite, left-wing and liberal newspapers over the next few decades.  Most of these ventures were short-lived, however, due to constant changes in the political situation [2].  The only exceptions to this rule have been the government and semi-government broadcast and print media, which have continued to operate without a break since the late 1960s, and for 20 years faced barely any viable competition.  Since the establishment of Bahrain Radio and Television as a government broadcasting corporation in 1975 [3], for example, they have been, and remain, the only radio and TV stations in the country, in contrast with the multiplicity of broadcast media seen in the other Gulf states.

There are question marks too over the nature of the print media’s relationship with the government.  The two longest-running papers on the scene, Akhbar al-Khaleej and Al-Ayam, are owned or run by prominent individuals close to both the Prime Minister and the King [4], and enjoyed a run of over two decades without competition.

The first sign of change in Bahrain came with the new millennium, when the government embarked on political reforms that opened the way for the licensing of further daily newspapers, such as Al-Bilad, Al-Wasat, Al-Meethaq and Al-Waqt [5].  However, this new development was not without its problems.  Most of the new publications were no different from Ayam and Akhbar al-Khaleej as regards their relationship with key figures in the government, as well as in their content, with all of them producing very similar front pages.

The next change came about with the outbreak of Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011, which put an end to the limited margin of freedom newspapers and journalists had been allowed until then.  Journalism became a genuinely hazardous profession, for journalists themselves and for their families, putting their lives, livelihoods, safety and freedom at risk.  Statistics show that three journalists were killed [6], along with the arrests [7] of several journalists [8] and camera operators [9].  Bahrain’s ranking on the Press Freedom Index fell from 117 in 2003 [10] to 166 in 2018 [11].

More recently, in June 2017 Al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper with a long and active record, was closed down by order of the Information Ministry for “violating the law and repeatedly publishing and disseminating material… affecting the Kingdom of Bahrain’s relations with other States” [12].  This was the fourth time the paper had been suspended from publication since 2011 [13].

Meanwhile, hopes of developing the broadcast media in Bahrain were pinned on the success of Alarab, the satellite TV channel owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, after he announced his intention to base it in Bahrain [14].  Alarab was Bahrain’s biggest and certainly most surprising media venture, as channel director Jamal al-Khashoggi kept announcing its intention to be objective and courageous in its news coverage [15], while analysts wondered whether Alarab would really be capable of crossing the Bahraini government’s many red lines.

On the other hand, it later emerged that the government was in favour of providing a home for Alarab because of the positive impact this would have on Bahrain’s international reputation: the Information Minister described the channel’s opening as “a blessed step” [16].  And yet, despite all this, the channel remained in operation for no more than a day.  It was banned from broadcasting after inviting the Bahraini opposition figure Khalil al-Marzouq on air [17].  Negotiations between the government and the channel’s management failed to produce any solution, until in the end Alarab finally left Bahrain [18].

We should also mention Lualua TV, a pro-opposition channel set up in London in 2011 as the first Bahraini satellite channel independent of the government [19], which had connections and activities all across the Arab world.

There has been no great improvement in the situation for online platforms either, as dozens of Twitter users, photographers, video makers and bloggers have been pursued and put on trial in recent years for their activities on social media [20].  However, there has been a breakthrough in online journalism with the website Mar’at al-Bahrain/Bahrain Mirror (and to some extent bahrainalyoum), which was also set up as an independent organisation outside the country [21].

Taken together, these facts show that the media set-up in Bahrain is based on the government having a near-monopoly of the media, especially TV and radio, and there seems to be no prospect of improvement as the country’s political situation deteriorates.

 

 

 

Qatar:  The riddle of Al Jazeera and the local press

Despite its small size in terms of geography and population, the State of Qatar punches above its weight at a regional and international level both diplomatically and in the media, enabling it to rival major regional powers.  The main source of its media power is the satellite channel Al Jazeera, with the prestige it carries within international journalism and its ability to influence societies, governments and government policies.  Analysts see this influencing power as itself providing one of the key reasons for the 2013 diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its neighbours the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia: the three countries were unhappy with Al Jazeera’s regional impact rivalling Saudi influence in particular [22].

Al Jazeera’s highly professional and pioneering journalism would appear to be at odds with the situation of the local Qatari press, which is not much different from its peers in other Gulf countries with regard to its organisational structure, reliance on news provided by the government, and limited room for manoeuvre.

What Al Jazeera and the Qatari press have in common, however, is the way the Qatari government uses them as political tools to serve Qatari foreign policy.  On the one hand, Qatar presents itself to the world through Al Jazeera as a progressive modern state that believes in democracy, pluralism, freedom and dialogue.  On the other hand, meanwhile, it has not allowed its domestic media to play their proper role as the Fourth Estate because – according to international reports – the country does not practise a culture of democracy, and because the press itself applies heavy self-censorship [23].

Meanwhile, the website of the English-language Doha News has been blocked in Qatar since 2016 for violation of the country’s media licensing laws, despite the paper’s repeated attempts to regularise its position and work legally within Qatar.  In a statement it pointed to the Qatari government’s failure “to recognise the newspaper’s cooperation with a Qatari company”, along with its failure to clarify the necessary procedures for regularising the newspaper’s position, as a result of which it had transferred its operations out of the country [24].

Matters became more complicated with the outbreak of the Gulf crisis with Saudi Arabia, and the media situation became particularly tense, with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all sniping at each other in the media.

 

 

 

Kuwait:  Open economy vs closed politics

Perhaps what distinguishes Kuwait from the rest of the Gulf states is that journalism entered its cultural lexicon at a very early stage, at roughly the same time as in Bahrain.  Kuwait, however, took a different approach to the press from Bahrain, one based on journalistic and media pluralism.  It allowed the founding of a diverse range of newspapers, as well as the establishment of TV channels independent of government agencies.

This distinctive feature of Kuwait’s media may be due to the interplay between capital wealth and political power.  The desire of some businessmen and prominent merchant families to acquire a measure of political influence in the country was one of the driving forces behind the emergence of numerous daily papers from the 1970s onwards.  The big change came, however, when permits were granted to set up private satellite channels as part of a general move to open up the economy to private capital, starting with Alrai TV, followed by Al Watan, Funoon, Al Kout and Al Youm.

These channels have sometimes clashed with the government, however.  In the past five years this has happened with three satellite channels (Al Youm [25], Al Watan [26] and Al Kut [27]) and two newspapers (Al Watan [28] and Alam Al Youm [29]).  Political circumstances led to the issuing of politicised court orders against certain individuals on the Boards of Directors of these media establishments, and withdrawal of their licences.

Online journalism in its various forms – text, video and audio – has also developed, with the emergence of more than 240 news websites, channels and newspapers.  The Electronic Media Law of 2016 made it mandatory to obtain a licence from the Information Ministry, and online newspaper editors say that since the law was introduced there has been an increase in the number of cases of newspapers being accused of cyber crimes, some of them for having “circulated false news and undermined relations with a sister State” [30].

In a related development, activists, writers and those active on Twitter have not been spared from the increasing climate of repression.  Statistics indicate that as of 2016 there were more than 500 cases currently under review in the courts related to freedom of expression [31], and that the government has been using loosely drafted laws to interpret criticisms of the government and Emir as security offences [32].

Kuwaitis also face huge challenges in exercising their freedom to discuss public affairs in other countries [33].  Several Twitter activists face criminal charges for having criticised the policies of other Gulf states, and sentences in some cases of up to 31 years in prison [34].

 

 

 

Saudi Arabia:  The centralised state regains its strength 

The diversity of culture and lifestyles in Saudi Arabia has enabled the Saudis to create a variety of press and media outlets with divergent views and aims, ranging from small regional newspapers to national and international newspapers, and satellite TV channels with a pan-Arab reach and influence.

The Saudi media landscape can be said to represent a complex picture, combining features present in the other Gulf states with a model of its own, bringing together the government’s regional ambitions with creation of a space for the expression of opinions on public affairs.  This may be due to the role of the Saudi mercantile class in mobilising and activating media platforms somewhat independently of the state, thus reducing the effectiveness of the state’s mechanisms for censorship and control.

It is not unusual for political figures of opposition tendencies to appear on Saudi satellite channels expressing their opinions with some degree of freedom to criticise the public authorities [35], and indeed even debate sensitive religious topics with a greater measure of freedom than in some other Gulf states like Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, despite no real political life having become established in the kingdom.

Today, however, things have started to change and there are tighter restrictions on press freedom.  Saudi Arabia recently saw a widescale campaign of arrests that swept up dozens of journalists [36], writers, researchers, academics and clerics for disagreeing with the government’s foreign and domestic policies [37], some of these arrests taking place on direct royal orders [38].  Analysts have linked this crackdown with the growing influence of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman Al Saud, and the increasing centralisation of decision-making [39].  Although there have recently been apparent moves to liberalise Saudi society, these have not translated into any liberalisation of Saudi politics.

There is also in Saudi Arabia the phenomenon of “phantom accounts”.  These exist in all the Gulf states, but they are particularly prevalent in Saudi online spaces.  A British study shows that they use software to generate hundreds of new accounts in a short period of time to coincide with political events, and their content is usually fabricated [40], suggesting a deliberate underlying strategy.

 

 

 

UAE:  Media used to inflate the country’s regional and global role

The UAE is largely similar to Qatar in its desire to gain regional influence through its media, in particular Sky News Arabia, which competes as a media organisation with Al Jazeera.  The UAE is also concerned to carve out a place for itself in the media field by organising major prizes and conferences that attract a lot of favourable attention regionally and around the world [41].  The emirate of Dubai has shown a particular interest in setting up media development zones such as Dubai Media City.

However, the reality within the UAE is different from the government’s media facade.  A number of communications applications like Skype, and especially WhatsApp and Discord, are banned [42], and the Emirati laws restricting freedom of the press make Emirati journalists tread cautiously around the issues of politics, economics and foreign affairs [43].

Media discourse in the UAE is strongly influenced by the prevalence of conspiracy theories about the country being subject to “systematic warfare aimed at discrediting the pioneering role and cultural projects of the UAE” on social media, as Dherar Belhoul, a senior figure in the State Security Service, put it in an address to the Emirates Media Forum [44].  The security mentality, then, has come to dominate all aspects of the country’s media, especially with regard to organisations linked with political Islam.

Meanwhile, the movements of all journalists, writers and activists generally are now kept under constant security surveillance, in line with the UAE government’s policy of stepping up its espionage capabilities by buying the latest equipment [45].

The UAE’s position on the Press Freedom Index also fell nine places between 2017 and 2018 [46], which raises questions about the part regional changes, notably the Gulf crisis, have played in this decline.

 

 

Oman:  Writers, journalists and novelists continue to face prosecution

For a long time there was relatively little in the way of Omani journalism, as it developed fairly late compared with the rest of the Gulf.  The media remained traditional, not straying beyond the limits set for them.  Following the wave of protests that broke out in various governorates of Oman in February 2011, however, the relationship between citizens and the State changed.  Omanis became more willing to form independent civil associations concerned with public affairs, and there was a greater level of coordination and communication among writers, researchers and activists in order to rationalise their efforts.

In the course of all this, the independent newspaper Al Balad emerged in 2012 as the first Omani online publication [47], presenting public issues and topics to the Omani public in a completely different way from the official media and print newspapers, both in using modern media to transmit information and in the subject matter it tackled.  However, this new venture was unable to last for long, and in 2016 it announced that for financial and administrative reasons beyond its control it had decided to close down [48].

Meanwhile Mowatin magazine was also set up in June 2013 as a political/cultural/intellectual journal dealing with issues of the citizen and society, but it too was forced to close after a number of its writers were arrested and forcibly disappeared [49].  Moreover, when the magazine relaunched on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, in 2017 from a new base in London, its website was blocked in Oman within 24 hours [50].

Print media in Oman have faced huge challenges, as seen in the case of Azamn newspaper.  The paper was shut down by court order after publishing an article about corruption in the Omani judiciary; its editor in chief and managing editor were sentenced initially to three years in prison and another journalist to one year [51].

More generally, writers [52], novelists, journalists and Twitter users [53] are frequently arrested and tried in Oman on charges relating to “insulting the Sultan”, “contempt for Islam” and “sullying the reputation of the government” [54].

In another development, the Sultanate barred 23 publications from the Muscat International Book Fair in 2018 [55], despite the Information Minister’s declarations in previous years that there would be no banning of any books [56].  The blacklisting order covered a variety of titles including political and cultural books as well as works of fiction, including some issued by the Omani Ministry of Culture.  This suggests that the order was about blacklisting authors themselves rather than objecting to the content of their works.  For example, all works by researcher Sultan al-Hashimi were banned from the 2018 Book Fair, despite being a mixture of fiction, journalism and academic writings [57].

 

 

In brief:

Bahrain

  • The government has been the only player in the field of TV, radio and print media for over 25 years
  • It tries to maintain control over print media by subsidising publications close to the government
  • There were some positive developments in Bahrain in 2001, but they have not turned out as hoped
  • The government closed down the independent newspaper Al-Wasat in 2017
  • The government closed down Alarab satellite channel, owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, less than 24 hours after it went on air because it hosted Bahraini opposition figure Khalil al-Marzouq
  • There was a government clampdown following the political unrest that began in 2011
  • Three citizen journalists were killed after 2011
  • There were dozens of arrests of journalists and camera operators, and non-renewal of accreditation for foreign news agency correspondents
  • Bahrain’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index dropped from 117 in 2003 to 166 in 2018
  • A Bahraini satellite TV channel and an online newspaper independent of the government started up abroad after 2011

 

Qatar

  • Al Jazeera represents “soft power” for the Qatari state, and its capacity to influence other states is one of the reasons behind the Gulf crisis
  • The high professional standards of Al Jazeera have not translated into improvements in the local Qatari press, which continues to be owned by members or close allies of the ruling family
  • Self-censorship is strong and suffocating, affecting everything that is published
  • Blocking of the Doha News website led it to transfer its journalistic operations abroad
  • Al Jazeera is used as a way to reinforce Qatar’s standing as a progressive state that supports press freedom

 

Kuwait

  • Differs from the rest of the GCC states in allowing media greater leeway and having media pluralism in both print and electronic formats and satellite channels
  • The interplay of private capital and politics contributed to the launching of private satellite TV channels
  • Some of these channels have had run-ins with the government, leading to three of them being shut down: Al Youm, Al Watan and Al Kut
  • Two newspapers have also been closed down: Al Youm channel’s Alam Al Youm and Al Watan channel’s print outlet Al Watan
  • These measures have targeted individual board members or owners of the channels. For example, the owner of Al Youm channel was stripped of his Kuwaiti citizenship, which meant he was no longer eligible to hold a media licence and the Information Ministry closed down the channel
  • There have been increasing levels of repression, arrests and use of laws restricting liberties
  • In 2016 the courts had under review 500 cases relating to freedom of opinion
  • Kuwaitis cannot talk about public affairs in other countries for fear of being accused of “undermining relations with a sister State”

 

Saudi Arabia

  • A hybrid mix of attempts to gain regional influence and economic liberalisation
  • Opposition figures or reformists used to appear on satellite TV channels and criticise government policies from time to time, but things have changed as Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman Al Saud has become increasingly influential and decision-making more centralised
  • An extensive wave of arrests has swept up dozens of writers, researchers, journalists and clerics for disagreeing with the government’s domestic and foreign policies
  • Steps toward economic and social liberalisation have not translated into political liberalisation

 

UAE

  • The UAE tries to win regional and global influence through Sky News Arabia, by hosting media conferences and awards, and by setting up big media projects like Dubai Media City
  • Communications apps WhatsApp, Skype and Discord are blocked
  • Emirati laws restrict freedom to publish digitally
  • The government claims to be the target of an ongoing media war. Senior security official Dherar Belhoul has stated publicly: “The Emirates are facing systemic warfare aimed at discrediting the pioneering role and cultural projects of the UAE.”
  • The UAE buys the latest espionage equipment and software, even from Israeli companies
  • The UAE slipped nine places on the Press Freedom Index from 2017 to 2018

 

Oman

  • The 2011 protest movement had a major impact in moving the country’s media infrastructure away from the traditional model of government control toward independent journalism ventures
  • Al Balad was established in 2012 as Oman’s first online newspaper and first independent newspaper, but closed down in 2016 because of financial and administrative circumstances beyond its control
  • Mowatin magazine was founded in 2013 but was forced to cease operations because its writers were being arrested and harassed by the security services. It re-opened in London in 2017 on Press Freedom Day
  • Azamn newspaper was put on trial for reporting on corruption in the Omani judiciary. The paper was shut down and its managing editor and editor-in-chief were both sentenced to three years in prison; another journalist at the paper was given a one-year sentence
  • Every year dozens of writers, journalists and Twitter users are arrested and put on trial in Oman charged with offences relating to “insulting the Sultan”, “contempt for Islam” and “sullying the reputation of the government”
  • Twenty-three publications were barred from the Muscat International Book Fair in 2018 despite the Information Minister’s repeated declarations that “the time of banning books has ended”

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