News / Middle East

Arab Spring Brings Successes and Setbacks for Media Freedom

William Ide

The Arab Spring uprisings successfully uprooted several long-standing authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa, and led to elections in Tunisia, and next month in Egypt.  But the shift from decades of authoritarian rule to a more open and free society has been bumpy in some cases.  And challenges to press freedom persist across the region.

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned this year, expectations were high that the Arab Spring would bring a blossoming of media freedom.

But analysts note that events like the government's recent crackdown on protestors in Cairo -- and state media's coverage of the riots -- are only small examples of the challenges journalism continues to face.

In their coverage of the protests, state media not only claimed the protestors were armed, but also urged the public to come out and support the military.

Adel Iskandar is an Arab media analyst at Georgetown University here in Washington.

"This was sort of a reminder that even the state media, the state broadcasters, the state journalistic institutions -- they haven't actually reformed, but have deteriorated in the manner in which they treat news," Iskandar said.

Independent news organizations disputed Egyptian state media's reporting of the protests.  The military held its own news conference and praised state media for its coverage.

According to journalists in Egypt, the transitional council has on numerous occasions interfered with programming.

Yosri Fouda recently suspended his popular talk show "The Final Word" indefinitely to protest government efforts to stifle free expression.

"We're seeing this tug of war between media institutions that are trying to affirm and assert their freedom to cover stories.  And the military, trying to control the political situation, so it doesn't get out of hand for them," Fouda said.

Karin Karlekar of the U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House agrees.

"The impetus to reform hasn’t really happened with the military transitional government.  There have been quite a few crackdowns -- both in terms of arrests of [Internet] bloggers and other types of legal restrictions or sort of saying no one can criticize the military government," Karlekar said.

Karlekar says the prospects for media reform look better in Tunisia -- the country that ignited a string of uprisings across the region and held landmark elections last Sunday.

"Tunisia did pass a freedom of information law recently, which was a really good step.  There have been discussions on legal and regulatory reform.  And there have been a lot of local groups, unions, press freedom organizations that have been involved in those discussions," Karlekar said.

In Syria, where an uprising has been going on for months, analysts say the space for broadcast media is so limited that the Internet remains the only source of information.

"We are talking about a protest movement that began in mid-February.  So this is a fairly lengthy period of time to not have access to reliable, easily corroboratable information," Iskandar said.

Footage which purportedly shows Syrian forces shelling the city of Homs on Wednesday is one example of how media access remains tenuous because it can not be independently verified.  Under such conditions, media analysts say it is amazing that the protests have managed to last as long as they have.

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