The American Islamic Congress, a civil rights organization, has held a forum in Washington, D.C. on limited media freedom in the Muslim world. Experts who spoke there Tuesday say government control and ownership of the media is widespread in the Middle East and in some other predominately Muslim countries, and called on the United States to support free and independent journalism everywhere. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.
Richard Eisendorf is a Progam Manager for Freedom House, a non-governmental organization based in the United States that conducts research and advocates for political freedoms. He said his group's report shows that in 2007, the Middle East and North Africa had the lowest level of press freedom in the world. "Journalists in the region face surveillance, intimidation, sexual assaults, torture, imprisonment and sometimes worse," he said.
Omran Salman, a journalist and Executive Director of Aafaq, an Arab reform website, agrees. He says the issue with media in the Arab and Muslim world is no longer a question of censorship, but of ownership and control by governments.
"They control the printed media and they are trying to control the satellite TV channels too. And they imposed a lot of restrictions on the Internet media too. Some of Arab governments own the vast majority of the printed media, such as newspapers, magazines, and of course they have their own official TV's and official radios. So they don't need any more to censorship because they control actually the media," he said.
Pakistani authorities made headlines Sunday when they tried to block the popular video-sharing website YouTube because of concerns that a video clip attacking Islam might generate widespread unrest. The action inadvertently made the site inaccessible to users around the world, but has now been restored.
Maneeza Hossain, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, a policy research organization, cited the controversy that began more than two years ago over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as an example of the delicate interplay between conservative Muslim societies and governments that sometimes use religious sentiments for their own purposes.
"The most blatant example of this dynamic is the issue of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Muslim societies are adverse to such depiction. However the violent reaction to the Danish cartoons was instigated, manipulated and exaggerated by the interests of governments," he said.
Hossain is from Bangladesh, and she said the military government now running her country has also cracked down on the media, imprisoning and expelling journalists and writers.
Richard Eisendorf of Freedom House called on every member of the U.S. Congress to adopt a prisoner of conscience, saying if each office made sustained efforts on behalf of one prisoner it could save lives. He also called on the U.S. government to use diplomatic pressure to support independent media in the Muslim world.