SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

RSF 2021 Index: Spotlight on the Levant

Tuesday , 20 April 2021
Lebanon: Highly politicized media, free speech under attack

Lebanon’s media are outspoken but also extremely politicized and polarized. Its newspapers, radio stations and TV channels serve as the mouthpieces of political parties or businessmen. Lebanon’s criminal code regards defamation and the dissemination of false information as crimes and defines them very broadly. It is disturbing to see how the courts are used to prosecute media outlets and journalists who take any interest in reputedly all-powerful politicians or religious leaders. In recent years, the courts have harassed TV presenters who have allowed guests to criticize officials on the air, and newspapers that have investigated corruption. Journalists can be prosecuted by military or print media courts and can be sentenced to imprisonment although, in practice, the courts usually fine them and reserve prison sentences for those being tried in absentia.
Syrian refugees and relations with Israel are also very sensitive issues. The October 2019 “revolution” has lifted the taboo on criticizing previously “untouchable” figures, but attacks on the media have intensified during the demonstrations. The police have used disproportionate force against journalists and have attacked them although they were clearly identifiable as such. Reporters working for pro-government media have been treated with suspicion by demonstrators and some have been roughed up. Others identified by members of their community have been accused of being traitors if their reporting was regarded as unfavourable. Finally, bloggers and online journalists continue to receive subpoenas from the “bureau for combatting cyber-crimes” if something they have posted on social media has elicited a complaint from a member of the public, often a prominent person linked to the government.

RANKING: 107/180 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index (-5 positions; ranked 102 in 2020).

Jordan: Closely watched

Jordan’s media censor themselves and avoid subjects that are implicitly off limits. It is not unusual for stories to be written and then get spiked by wary editors. Journalists are subject to close surveillance by the intelligence services and must be affiliated to the state-controlled Jordanian Press Association. The authorities have stepped up control, especially over the Internet, since 2012, when the press and publications law was overhauled. Hundreds of websites have been blocked since 2013, mostly on the grounds that they have no licence. Under the 2015 cyber-crime law, articles published in online newspapers and social network posts by citizen-journalists can be punishable by jail sentences and can constitute grounds for pre-trial detention. Security grounds are often used to prosecute and sometimes jail journalists under an extremely vague terrorism law. Gag orders issued by the media commission restrict the public debate and limit journalists’ access to information on sensitive issues.

RANKING: 129/180 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index (-1 position; ranked 128 in 2020).

Palestine: Harassed journalists

Continuing political tension increases the dangers of journalism in Palestine. Since May 2018, two Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli snipers and dozens have been wounded while covering the “March of Return” protests in the Gaza Strip, which are continuing. In the West Bank, use of live rounds by the Israel Defence Forces to disperse protests exposes reporters to the possibility of serious injury. At least three Palestinian journalists have permanently lost the use of an eye in this way. The Israeli forces have continued to subject Palestinian journalists to arrest, interrogation and administrative detention, often without any clear grounds. In recent years, the Israeli authorities have also closed several Palestinian media outlets for allegedly inciting violence. For journalists, the price of the political rivalry between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories includes threats, heavy-handed interrogation, arrest without charge, intimidatory lawsuits and prosecutions, and bans on covering certain events. The political tension combined with harassment by the Israeli authorities complicates the work of Palestinian journalists to the point of self-censorship. Several websites regarded by the Palestinian Authority as opposition media have been inaccessible since 2017. Online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also sometimes censor information. Under Israeli political pressure, these platforms have deleted content or suspended the accounts of Palestinian journalists and media outlets accused of inciting violence. In some cases, deleted content has been restored after appeals to moderators, but local NGOs accuse platforms of using “double standards” in their treatment of Israeli and Palestinian content.

RANKING: 132/180 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index (+5 positions; ranked 137 in 2020).

Syria: Unbearable environment
The risk of arrest, abduction or death make journalism extremely dangerous and difficult in Syria. At least 10 journalists were killed in 2018, of whom three were the victims of murders in unclear circumstances that were never solved. The updating of civil registers have confirmed that five journalists also died in recent years while held in Bashar al-Assad’s jails. Since the start of 2018, dozens of journalists have had to flee the advance of government troops, especially into the southwestern Ghouta and Deraa regions, because they feared arrest. Journalists are the targets of intimidation by all parties to the conflict – by the Syrian military and its allies as well as the various armed opposition groups including Turkish-backed forces, Kurdish forces and radical Islamist groups such as Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al Sham. Of the new Syrian media created by citizen-journalists shortly after the start of the uprising in 2011, few have survived. The Syrian government gave itself a new tool for cracking down on the Internet in March 2018 by creating special cyber-crime courts.

RANKING: 173/180 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index (+1 position; ranked 174 in 2020).

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