NEW YORK (Reuters) - Journalists have been suppressed in popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in more than 500 attacks, some of them deadly, according to a media rights watchdog.
Mohamed Abdel Dayem, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in the Middle East and North Africa, said the number of attacks on the media in the region since the start of the year was “unprecedented.”
“This hasn’t happened before, not with this intensity and not with this frequency,” he said.
British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Oscar-nominated war documentary “Restrepo”, was killed in the besieged Libyan town of Misrata on Wednesday and other photographers injured.
Dayem said 14 journalists had been killed worldwide this year, with 10 of those deaths in the Middle East and North Africa. Hundreds of other assaults on media in the region included detentions, destruction of equipment and death threats.
While the committee said press freedom had improved since protesters ousted the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, it described the situation as graduating from “horrendous to bad.”
Access to social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook will help thwart tight censorship in the region, experts say, but it is uncertain whether unrest in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Saudi Arabia will lead to greater democracy.
“It is not possible to stuff a sock in that many mouths,” said Dayem. “There used to be a time when the number of mouths was limited and (governments) could shut all of them up all the time. That model is not longer viable.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities in Yemen to explain why they have held prominent journalist Ali Salah Ahmed since Tuesday without revealing his location or charging him with a crime.
Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s North Africa division, said the recent uprisings had led to a “net gain” for freedom of the media in the region.
“It’s possible to disseminate information from places like Bahrain or Syria in a way that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. It’s just night and day comparison,” Stork said.
“On balance definitely there’s a freer exchange of information but not because governments are allowing it — because they haven’t figured out how to control it.”
Curbs on the media will be much harder to maintain, partly because of more access to cell phones and the Internet, said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s also because the ‘Arab Revolts’ have de-legitimized censorship even more, just as they have de-legitimized stealing elections and stealing public funds,” Abrams said.
“Many governments will continue to try to intimidate journalists physically or through phony prosecutions ... but it will be less and less effective.”
But, Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said that while some protesters were demanding more freedom for journalists, it was too early to tell what sort of progress might be made.
“We have seen the emergence of the blogger, the citizen journalist ... breaking through,” he said.
Stork said while Egypt appeared to be moving in a positive direction, media freedom had been dealt a blow when the country’s ruling military council demanded last month that coverage by Egyptian newspapers had to be approved by the military’s Morale Affairs Directorate and intelligence.
“The military obviously doesn’t like criticism or critical discussion and they have instructed the media not to engage in it and certainly the major outlets have complied,” he said.
Dayem warned that if there was no change in government in some countries it could result in harsher media treatment, referring an unsuccessful popular uprising in Iran in 2009.
“That certainly hasn’t resulted in a freer media,” he said. “In fact, it’s resulted in a harsher climate for the media in Iran and it has resulted almost directly in Iran being the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2010.”
Editing by Mark Egan and Christopher Wilson