Human rights and press monitoring groups consider the Middle East and North Africa as regions having the worst record for press freedom in the world. Outright censorship, restrictive laws and intimidation of journalists are among the tools used by governments to maintain control over the media. More from VOA's Bill Rodgers.

Watchdog groups say Israel is the only country in the region considered to have a free press. They say the media in most of the other countries in the Middle East and North Africa are tightly controlled.

Restrictive laws on what can be reported are one way press freedom is suppressed, says Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I think when you read some of the language in these press laws and, in fact, when you compare them across the region, the language is very similar, it seems as if they're borrowed, they appear designed to allow control over the media from licensing, to what can and cannot be printed, to allow the authorities to control or rein in dissenting journalism," he said.

Campagna spoke at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, exploring freedom of the press in the Arab world. Acting committee chairman Gary Ackerman expressed concern over the situation. "When governments cease to be public servants and instead become devotees of their own interests, censorship, secrecy and misinformation are sure to follow. Bad government cannot tolerate a free press and cannot long survive in conditions where there is true freedom of expression."

Watchdog groups say, in general, the Arab press seldom runs articles critical of its national leaders or policies. Television is usually state controlled. The one topic that seems free from censorship is criticism of Israel.

And much of that press coverage is virulent and often anti-Semitic, says Kenneth Jacobson of the Anti-Defamation League. He warns that this kind of propaganda -- among other things -- undermines Arab support for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. "It is hard to imagine that such folks having images of Jews in Israel of the classical, conspiratorial type, would be open to making peace. So, number one, it is an obstacle to peace and, secondly, of course, it is a great generator of rationalization, and even support for the worst kind of terrorism."

Satellite television networks, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are the only bright spots for press freedom say the panelists. Without more freedom of the press, they warn, democracy will not take root in the Middle East.