Sunday, May 3, 2009

World Press Freedom Day, 2009

Israel Loses Prized 'Free' Press Status; Kuwait Tops Arab World
The Media Line
Written by The Media Line Staff
Published Sunday, May 03, 2009

Israel's media freedom ranking has been downgraded from "free" to "partly free," the first time the Jewish State has lost its status as the only Middle Eastern nation with a "free" press.

In a report released over the weekend to coincide with World Press Freedom Day today, Washington-based non-profit Freedom House lowered Israel's rank from 59 to 72 out of 195 countries surveyed, citing restrictions on journalists' freedom of movement, increased self-censorship during wartime and "biased reporting."

The report found the Middle East to have the lowest level of press freedom in the world, with three in every four Middle Easterners living in one of 15 "not free" Middle Eastern nations.

Only four Middle Eastern countries – Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt – were deemed "partly free" by the organization, receiving rankings of 72, 115, 118 and 128 respectively, out of the 195 countries surveyed.

The Palestinian Authority and Libya received the least favorable ratings among the many Middle Eastern nations, to receive the "not free" rank, coming in respectively at 184 and 190.

“Although transnational broadcast media and Internet-based forms of information dissemination have had a positive impact," the report read, "media environments in the region are generally constrained by extremely restrictive laws concerning libel and defamation, the insult of monarchs and public figures, and emergency rule."

The report expressed particular concern for media freedom in Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia, "where journalists and bloggers faced harsh repercussions for expressing independent views."

While Israel easily retained its rank as the most open media environment in the Middle East, the country lost its place among the "free" press nations of the world, a status it had held for over 25 years.

The demotion comes after Israel received extensive criticism for severely limiting journalists' access to the Gaza Strip during the heightened military conflict in the coastal strip in December and January.

“ The Israeli political system guarantees the fundamental conditions essential to the operation of a free press," Yizhar Be'er, executive director of Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, told the Media Line.

"Journalists enjoy complete freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom of information and these rights are rarely violated."

Still, Be'er continued, "we have called on the Israeli government to lift the ongoing closure to foreign journalists of passageways between Israel and the Gaza Strip. We view this as a serious and sustained blow to the freedom of the press and to the international statutes that protect it."

Beyond the restrictions on access, the Freedom House report further stated that the Gaza conflict triggered "official attempts to influence media coverage" and "greater self-censorship and biased reporting."

Be'er added, "Due to the inability of the press to cover events from the field independently, one of the main problems we have found in the coverage of the recent conflict is the absolute reliance on information from the IDF spokesperson."

Media freedom in the Israeli Occupied Territories, already ranked as one of the most restrictive media environments in the world, showed further negative decline due to what the report called "worsening intimidation by both major political factions that restricts critical and independent coverage."

The report found journalists in the West Bank and Gaza have to face "pressure and threats from all sides, including from Israeli forces present in some parts of the territories."

Kuwait, receiving the highest ranking among Arab nations in the Middle East, has experienced a boom in media competition in recent years.

"Kuwait has opened itself to two new kinds of media outlets over the past few years," Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of political science at Kuwait University and founding president of the American University of Kuwait, told The Media Line.

"In the past we only had Kuwait TV and a few newspapers controlled by elite families since the 1960s. Today, we have over a dozen daily newspapers and seven, eight or nine different satellite channels with political programming and open debate. All this has brought a higher level of freedom of expression."

Ghabra warns, however, against assuming that positive steps are permanent steps.

"There have been episodes of freedom and episodes of no freedom throughout Middle Eastern history," he said. "I suppose my only concern is whether or not we can institutionalize these positive changes. It is always a challenge to keep and nourish such freedoms, and my fear is 'How long will this last?'

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