On March 27, the Brookings Doha Center hosted an event on media freedom in the Middle East. The focus was on the situation of journalist and media outlets in the region, as well as the threats to freedom of expression and independent reporting. The discussion highlighted the following question: what can be done to resist media closure in a context in which there is limited scope for litigation or for challenging censorship through normal democratic processes?
The question of media freedom takes on a particular character in the Middle East. Worldwide, the Middle East is the most dangerous region for journalists. Not only journalists, but also media outlets themselves are now under existential threat. It is not a big leap from showing disrespect for journalists to showing disrespect for the existence of media outlets. Whereas the demand for the closure of the Al Jazeera network by the blockading countries has received prominent media coverage and criticism, the phenomenon of media network closure by states is fairly common in the region. Egypt, for example, has imprisoned a record number of journalists; news outlets have been banned; and both traditional and self-censorship are widely practiced. During the recent January 2018 protests in Iran, the Iranian state closed down social media networks. Beyond direct censorship, outlets also face indirect repression through financial pressures and state influence over advertising networks.
The implications of such closure for freedom of expression are evident. Whereas the importance of media freedom and freedom of speech has been repeatedly emphasized in public debate, there have not been substantial practical recommendations on how the threat to media freedom can be countered.
The seminar brought together a group of media experts from academia and media networks. The speakers discussed the cases of Qatar, Egypt, Iran, and many others. They addressed the mechanisms and degrees of control that exist over the media, as well as potential avenues for resisting such control. The ways in which citizens of Middle Eastern countries counter formal censorship through ‘citizen journalism’ became a major point of debate. The speakers were asked to suggest practical and policy recommendations to help solve the crisis of media freedom in the region. The role of the media itself in resisting the closure of networks was also discussed.
The position of Al Jazeera specifically received considerable attention since the network has been at the center of the storm during the blockading countries’ demands. Al Jazeera’s objectivity, as well the perceived difference between Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, triggered a lively discussion. Much of the conversation focused on the question of how the network manages to provide a voice to controversial figures without creating the impression that it endorses the views of such figures.
Many of the speakers spoke about the changes brought about by the Arab Spring. There was consensus among the speakers that the post-Arab Spring climate is not necessarily freer for journalists in the Middle East. In many countries in the region, notably Egypt, journalists are now less free than ever before.
A follow-up event will take place in May 2018
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[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.