FILE - Protesters rally in support of three detained Al Jazeera journalists in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, June 1, 2014.
FILE - Protesters rally in support of three detained Al Jazeera journalists in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, June 1, 2014.

Rights groups warn that rulers across the Middle East are stepping up efforts to silence political dissent, detaining journalists, shuttering newspapers and blocking news sites.

Egypt added seven sites to its blacklist last weekend, including Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News, bringing to 103 the number of its blocked news sites, according the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a nonprofit watchdog group in Egypt founded by lawyers. The group said the clampdown constituted "a clear attack on the media" and was aimed at suppressing opponents and criticism.

The latest crackdown in Egypt started in May when the country's official news agency reported the government had ordered internet service providers to block access to 21 news sites, alleging they supported terrorism or were reporting false news.

The association said that so far, the government has failed "to disclose any judicial or administrative decision to block sites" and has not even officially announced it is doing so.

News platforms associated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood are among the sites blocked, including Ikhwan Online and Egypt-based Al-Sharq television, but the clampdown is ranging far beyond Islamist-associated outlets. The respected investigative news platform Mada Masr, the English-language Daily News and the Huffington Post's Arab-language edition are being blocked.

FILE - A Qatari employee of Al Jazeera Arabic lang
FILE - A Qatari employee of the Al Jazeera Arabic-language TV news channel walks past the logo of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar.

Al Jazeera draws anger

Also being blocked is Al Jazeera, the Qatari international broadcaster that Saudi Arabia has long pressured Doha to curb. Al Jazeera also has attracted the anger of authorities elsewhere. In early June, Jordan closed Al Jazeera's bureau in Amman, stripping it of its operating license.

Last week, it emerged that Israel was considering closing the Jerusalem bureau of Al Jazeera. One of the drivers of the current diplomatic standoff between Qatar and its neighbors, which has seen Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Bahrain impose a blockade on Qatar, is anger over Al Jazeera's freewheeling reporting outside Qatar. This has been confirmed by Western and Arab diplomats.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia accuse Al Jazeera of being supportive of Islamists and not critical enough of Iran. The news outlet's defenders say the real motivation fueling anger toward Al Jazeera is the fear that it prompts the Arab publics to question their rulers and encourages dissent, at least beyond the borders of Qatar.

International reporting on the increasingly restrictive media environment in the Middle East often focuses on Al Jazeera, but according to Arab journalists, press freedom in the Middle East is more restricted generally now than it was even in the years leading up the Arab Spring of 2011.

The Federation of Arab Journalists in May released a 200-page report surveying the worsening situation in 17 countries, blaming governments, owners and religious institutions for the curtailing of press freedom and the intimidation of reporters. Several dozen Egyptian journalists and bloggers are in jail, either detained pending investigation and trial or sentenced already.

Some analysts lament what they see as a muting of international criticism of the media crackdowns, arguing that Western governments seem willing to turn a blind eye to the excesses of authoritarian rulers in the interest of stability in the region.

A member of the Journalists Union of Turkey holds
A member of the Journalists Union of Turkey holds a placard reading "Enough!" during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in central Istanbul, May 3, 2017.

Turkish efforts

One exception has been Turkey. European Union governments have expressed alarm at what they see as a concerted effort by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to control journalists.

Most of the criticism has focused on the detention and prosecution of Turkish journalists and the government's seizure of newspapers and broadcasters that criticize its policies. The crackdown has expanded dramatically since last year's attempted coup.

This week, Erdogan dismissed allegations that journalists are being detained, insisting no one is jailed for journalism. He said on June 18 that "according to information from our [Justice] Ministry, only two of 177 people who are in prison and declared their profession as journalism have yellow press cards [officially accrediting them as journalists]. One of those 177 is in prison for murder, while the rest are in because of their ties to terrorist organizations."

Human rights groups accuse Turkey of jailing more journalists than any other country in the world. Erdogan's remarks were dismissed as disingenuous by media advocates, who say the government decides who gets press cards, and not having one doesn't mean someone isn't a journalist. The government has canceled dozens of press cards.

"The imprisoned journalists are [in prison] because they practiced journalism, chased the news, searched for the truth. Anything else is empty words," said Pinar Türenç, head of the country's Press Council.

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