Press still far from free in the Gulf's modern media prison
Gulf countries always fail the freedom of the press test, as seen with the 2013 World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders. Although these countries are wealthy and boast the trappings of modern states, they continue to rank at the bottom.
These relatively tranquil nations did not escape the impact of the region’s revolutionary movements. Despite their iron-fisted regimes, protesters came out in Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, calling for freedom and justice.
Authorities responded by targeting the media, in particular social media, given its ability to respond immediately to the uprisings’ day-to-day events. Soon, more laws emerged that threatened to imprison critics of political and religious authorities.
Kuwait ranked the highest of the Gulf countries, landing itself at spot 77 out of 179 countries. This is in spite of the fact that Kuwaiti authorities continue to prosecute hundreds of bloggers under the pretext of “undermining the status of the emir.” The Kuwaiti Court of Appeals also issued a one-year prison sentence against the Kuwaiti blogger Saqr al-Hashash on charges of insulting the emir on Twitter.
Recently, the Kuwaiti prime minister shelved a new media draft law approved by the Kuwait National Assembly. The law would’ve allowed authorities to fine journalists up to $1 million for criticizing the emir or crown prince. Furthermore, journalists could’ve faced up to 10 years in prison for insulting God, the Prophets of Islam, or the Prophet Mohammad’s wives or companions.
Despite establishing media cities that house Arab and foreign media offices, the United Arab Emirates still ranks 114 in the press index. The Gulf emirate simply does not have independent local media.
In the case of Qatar, al-Jazeera was the changing factor in the Qatari media landscape, despite the fact that the principality continues to clone the press freedom-restricting laws of other Gulf states. It ranked 110.
The report considered Oman’s ranking at 141 – a drop of 24 points from last year – as the biggest loss in the Middle East and North Africa. After the 2012 protests, the Omani government began to prosecute bloggers for violating the information technology law and for lèse-majesté, meaning violating the dignity of the Sultan. The last such blogger was Saeed Jaddad who was arrested for blogging about human rights.
Saudi Arabia ranked 163 in the report. While local newspapers are essentially government institutions, social media has become an outlet for regular Saudis to vent their concerns. This has prompted the regime to mobilize quickly, recruiting clergymen to issue religious edicts prohibiting social media usage.
As the Saudi Minister of Information and Culture Abdul-Aziz Khoja tweets – thus becoming the first Saudi official to be active in cyberspace – his ministry enacts laws to prosecute activists.
Bahrain, the site of continued protests, was designated the 2013 capital of Arab media at the Arab Media Forum held in Kuwait. The choice came in recognition of Bahrain’s “advanced status in the media field.” No one, it seems, paid attention to 60 fired journalists who demonstrate daily demanding to return to their jobs or the prosecution of six Twitter users for insulting the king.
By Mariam Abdallah
Do you think press freedom will ever improve in the Gulf? How has social media affected it? Share your comments with us below!