May 2 is World Press Freedom Day, but the world has little to celebrate. Reporters Without Borders has published the World Press Freedom Index 2014. Click through for the full discouraging report. Here's an excerpt on the Arabian Peninsula, followed by a comment:
Fearing the spread of the Arab Spring, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula have reinforced surveillance and control of the media, starting with the Internet, which has come to be a place where people express themselves with a freedom not found in the traditional media. As a result, the cyber-police of the Persian Gulf monarchies are on the lookout for any online article, post or tweet critical of government policy.
In the United Arab Emirates, any support for the Muslim Brotherhood is crushed. Long jail sentences were passed on two netizens who tweeted about the trial of 94 Emiratis accused of membership of Al-Islah, a local party with links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The authorities had banned observers and foreign reporters from the courtroom, leaving carefully selected local reporters to cover the trial. It will probably be the same for the trial of 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis accused of links with the Muslim Brotherhood and trying to overthrow the government. On 21 January 2014, they were given sentences ranging from three months to five years in prison.
Saudi Arabia, which is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet,” does not lag far behind. The kingdom is relentless in its censorship of the Saudi media and the Internet, and jails netizens without compunction. In 2013, the censors paid particular attention to calls for women to be allowed to drive, a popular topic online that even received a mention in some of the traditional media. Asharq Al-Awsat columnist Tariq Al-Mubarak was arrested in October on various grounds including a column criticizing the ban on women drivers.
The Saudi authorities are even stricter on matters concerning religion. In July, a sentence of seven years in prison and 600 lashes was passed on Raef Badawi, the founder of the now censored Saudi Liberals website, who had posted an article about St. Valentine that allegedly denigrated the religious police. The charges brought against him after his arrest in June 2012 initially included “apostasy” (abandoning one’s religious beliefs), but it was finally dropped.
In Kuwait, the authorities are cracking down on two sensitive subjects – the emir and religion. Two citizen-journalists, Badr Al-Rashidi and Ourance Al-Rashidi, were given long jail sentences for “insulting” the emir. They eventually received a royal pardon but, without reform of the law, there could be more convictions and there is no guarantee that the emir will be so benevolent with the next victims. A draconian bill was considered and then abandoned in April. It would have allowed the authorities to impose fines of up to 800,000 euros for criticizing the emir or the crown prince, and sentences of up to 10 years in prison for “insulting God, the Prophets of Islam, or the Prophet Mohamed’s wives or companions.”
In Oman, the sultan continues to be one of the main taboos. Anyone criticizing him is liable to feel the regime’s wrath. Netizens have been given long jail terms although some have subsequently been pardoned.
Bahrain, kingdom of disinformation
Ever since the start of a popular uprising in February 2011, the Bahraini monarchy has been a past master in the art of manipulating coverage of the street protests and the ensuing crackdown. In its efforts to protect Bahrain’s image, it has also cleverly exploited the reticence of western governments to condemn it, persuading them to accept its insincere promises and superficial reforms.
As a result, Manama was designated 2012 capital of Arab culture and 2013 capital of Arab tourism. Bahrain’s latest PR coup was to persuade the Arab League to let it host the Arab Court of Human Rights, although some of its jails are overflowing with prisoners of conscience.
Among this year's rankings: Finland's media remain the freest in the world. The only non-European country in the top 10 is New Zealand (#9, down 1 ranking from 2013). Canada is #13, up 2, the UK is #33, down 4, and the US is #46, down 14 (thanks largely to Edward Snowden).
To go back to the Arabian Peninsula: Qatar is #113, down 3 from 2013. The UAE is #118, down 3. Oman is #134, up 7. Jordan is #141, down 7. Pakistan is #158, up 1, and Egypt is #159, down 1. Bahrain is #163, up 2, and Saudi Arabia is #165, down 1.
These are countries that have currently loomed large in global health, given especially the MERS outbreaks in the Arabian Peninsula. And we need to remember that even when they toss out a health minister and start running daily counts, we are still getting nothing but what these countries' governments want us to know. Even the tweets in #Corona are mostly retweets of official statements relayed through the media.
So the Arab equivalent of Flublogia is effectively nonexistent. If we tried to operate in those countries, we'd be promptly shut down, jailed, and likely flogged.
This also means that the big national and international health agencies have a really hard job, simply getting these countries to tell them what's really going on. After all, what can outsiders do, short of declaring travel warnings? And those can create political blowback.
We are dealing with governments that didn't set out to become threats to global health; but if that's the price of retaining power, they're glad to pay it. If they don't really care about their own people's health, they certainly don't care about ours. We need to remember that.