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The middle east: reporters under fire

Charles Tripp
12 March 2009

Charles Tripp is a professor of politics with reference to the middle east at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He is a member of the board of trustees of the London Middle East Institute (LMEI); this article (with minor editorial variations) was published in the LMEI's monthly journal, The Middle East in London (March 2009)

Charles Tripp is the author of A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Islam and the Moral Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Also by
Charles Tripp in openDemocracy: "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008) The murder of three journalists and their driver in the city of Mosul in September 2008 is a reminder of the mortal danger faced by journalists and their support-staff in Iraq. The death of the four employees of Al-Sharqiya TV station while they were filming an innocuous show in celebration of iftar added to the toll of journalists killed in Iraq since 2003; by February 2009 this had reached 169, in addition to the fifty-five media workers (drivers, interpreters, technical support) who have lost their lives. The great majority, like the Al-Sharqiya crew, have been murdered by Iraqi insurgents or other militias, while a substantial number were killed in crossfire or died as a result of military action by American forces.

This makes Iraq by the far the most dangerous place in the world, let alone in the middle east, to work as a journalist. It underlines the bravery of those who daily risk their lives to bring to their own country and to the outside world news of a land where so much bad faith and dissembling has characterised the "official version" - whether Iraqi or American - for so many years. Nowhere else in the middle east do they face physical dangers on a similar scale.

Algeria, during its own civil war in the 1990s, came close, with the deaths of nearly 100 journalists and media workers; in the Palestinian territories since 2000, eleven journalists have been killed (seven by the Israel Defence Forces [IDF] and four by Palestinian forces.

But even these figures, terrible as they are, do not represent the only dangers facing journalists across the region. The harassment by the Egyptian authorities of the independent newspaper Al-Dustour is testimony to the fate of those who have the temerity to question the government. Its editor, Ibrahim Eissa, was sentenced to two months in prison in 2008 for the heinous crime of "disturbing public security and harming the country's economy" - that is, for suggesting that the health of Egypt's 80-year old president, Hosni Mubarak, was not quite as good as the official media pretended. (Eissa was subsequently granted a presidential pardon following a public and international outcry.)

In a similar vein, the courageous Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdhir dared to write about the curious business practices of the family of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; he was sentenced to a year in prison for the crime of "insulting a public employee" - presumably, the policeman who had stopped Boukhdhir's car and was beating him up at the time.

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Wherever journalists have got too close to the powerful and have failed to be suitably deferential they have paid the price, through the courts or otherwise. Thus, the Sudanese journalist Sami al-Haj, who had been working for Al-Jazeera, spent six years of his life incarcerated by the American authorities in Guantánamo without charge or trial. In 2008 in Iraqi Kurdistan - often regarded as Iraq's stable and open region - a Kurdish journalist, Nasseh Abd al-Rahim Rashid, was abducted by men in uniform, beaten up and threatened with death if he continued to report on the corruption of the Kurdish leaders and their armed forces.

Among openDemocracy's articles on media in the middle east:

Abdel Karim Samara, "The Arab media and the Iraq war" (12 August 2003)

Hazem Saghieh, "Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (16 June 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared" (23 March 2007)

Again, however, it is not just the state that journalists have to fear. There has been a spate of threats against journalists and writers from a number of Saudi clerics - some from the radical fringe but others, such as Shaikh Abdallah Bin Jabrin, very much part of the religious establishment. His call for the punishment of journalists who criticise religious figures finds an echo in Iran, where clerics obsessed by their political image have consistently used their supporters to repress or intimidate sections of the media.

This grim catalogue of intimidation, imprisonment and murder might suggest a region and a profession cowed and beaten into submission. Far from it: across the middle east there is a multitude of questioning, sometimes dissident voices rejecting the official line wherever it comes from. These voices use all the new media at their disposal in the service of a commitment to investigative reporting, to exposing power's webs of deceit and making it answer to a more robust version of the truth.

In doing so, at great risk to themselves, they also give people in other parts of the world the material to make our own judgments about a region so often misrepresented - not just by outsiders, but by vested interests within.

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