In the aftermath of the Annapolis peace conference,
foreign policy analysts and human rights advocates are finding considerable
irony in Israel's Arab neighbors pressing for freedom for Palestinians while
their own citizens continue carry a heavy burden of unrelenting political repression.
Most of those representing Middle East and North African nations at the Nov.
27 conference appear to endorse the idea of a "two-state solution"
to the decades-old conflict: a separate and contiguous Palestinian state living
in peace alongside Israel.
But Arab delegates to Annapolis including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan,
Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen have
had little to say about the nature of the state that may emerge from negotiations
set to begin soon between Israel and the Palestinians.
Critics of Israel's neighbors point out that, with a few exceptions, the governments
of these countries are unelected, authoritarian, often corrupt, and willing
to use any means to stifle dissent. In most of these countries, journalists
and bloggers have been jailed, peaceful demonstrations disrupted by police and
participants beaten and arrested, political parties effectively banned, elections
rigged or nonexistent, and citizens detained by security authorities without
charges or lawyers and often tortured or simply "disappeared."
Some observers see the absence of press freedom as emblematic of a broader
freedom deficit in most of the Arab countries represented at Annapolis. In most
Middle East and North African states, both the media and its messages are state-controlled.
Many are state-owned. All have extensive and expensive programs designed to
block satellite television and a wide range of Internet websites.
Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA told IPS, "Often the press will
face repression by the authorities who want to silence the truth about human
rights violations and other injustices taking place in those countries. And
by persecuting those who attempt to report on the truth, they send a chilling
message to all those who would dare to stand up for freedom."
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the worst offenders. Both countries are seen
as close allies of the US. The Saudi Kingdom is the source of much of the oil
consumed by the United States. And Egypt is second only to Israel in the amount
of US aid it receives each year its reward for making peace with Israel
In Egypt which has lived under draconian "emergency laws"
for more than 25 years President Hosni Mubarak promised in 2006 a long-delayed
press law reform designed to give journalists more freedom by decriminalizing
But according to Reporters Without Borders, a journalism advocacy organization,
the new law "turned out to be just a show."
"The media were quickly disillusioned by the many restrictions on their
activities contained in the amendments to it," the group says. "At
least seven journalists were arrested during the year and dozens threatened
or physically attacked."
The group says Egyptian journalists "can now be jailed for up to five
years for 'publishing false news,' defaming the president or foreign heads of
state or 'undermining national institutions' such as parliament and the armed
forces." TV and print journalists attempting to cover public events are
routinely harassed, arrested, threatened or beaten.
The Mubarak regime also continues its crackdown on Internet freedom. Hundreds
of websites have been blocked, and at least seven cyber-dissidents imprisoned.
The courts ruled that authorities could block, suspend or shut down websites
considered a threat to "national security."
A number of bloggers have been jailed. One was detained for posting criticism
of Islam and is still in prison. Another was jailed for four years after he
used his weblog to criticize the country's top Islamic institution, al-Azhar
University, and President Mubarak, whom he called a dictator.
Saudi Arabia also remains high on the list of countries that have aggressively
cracked down on press freedom. The Saudi regime maintains very tight control
of all news and self-censorship is pervasive. According to Reporters Without
Borders, "Enterprising journalists pay dearly for the slightest criticism
of the authorities or the policies of 'brother Arab' countries. The tame local
media content means most Saudis get their news and information from foreign
TV stations and the Internet."
The al-Jazeera TV channel is banned and was not allowed to cover the annual
pilgrimage to Mecca for the fifth consecutive year. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia
also blocks more than a thousand Internet websites.
Two journalists were dismissed for going beyond the limits set by the dominant
ultraconservative religious authorities. A writer for a government daily, Arab
News, was dismissed for writing about the atrocities perpetrated by Indonesia,
a Muslim country, during its 1975-99 occupation of East Timor.
The editor of another government daily, al-Watan, was forced to resign
after reporting that US troops were using the country's military bases. The
privately-owned daily Shams was closed for a month and its editor dismissed
for reprinting some of the incendiary cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed first
carried by a Danish paper in 2005.
Blogs are also becoming a growing problem for Saudi censors, who maintain a
"blacklist" said to contain hundreds of personal websites. In 2005,
authorities tried to completely bar access to the country's main blog-tool,
blogger.com, but gave up after only a few days because of the ubiquity of the
blogosphere. Today, the government censors blogs it object to.
In the Reporters Without Borders annual survey of press freedom, Egypt ranked
146th and Saudi Arabia 147th, out of a total of 169 countries worldwide. Israel,
including the occupied territories, ranked 44th.
Human rights groups have also been highly critical of Middle Eastern and North
African governments for imposing press restrictions, as well as for other numerous
and widespread human rights abuses.
Looking forward to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations emerging from the Annapolis
conference, Shaw of Amnesty International USA is urging both sides to respect
the basic human rights of the other.
"The parties should agree to the deployment of international human rights
monitors in Israel and the occupied territories, with a mandate to monitor and
report publicly on compliance and on violations by either party of their commitments
under international human rights and humanitarian law," she told IPS.
But given the consistently flawed human rights records of Israel's neighbors,
critics wonder how eager any of the Annapolis delegates will be to endorse this
This is the question raised by the Egyptian-born journalist and lecturer Mona
Eltahawy, distinguished visiting professor at the American University in Cairo,
who has lived in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
She told IPS, "When I was a Jerusalem-based Reuters correspondent in 1998,
many Palestinians would tell me they wanted a future Palestinian state to be
like Israel. They meant an open and democratic country. I thought it was ironic
that their 'role model' state was the one occupying them."
Eltahawy, who is a contributor to the Washington Post blog "Post
Global," charged that the late Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials
"modeled a nascent Palestinian state on Egypt, Jordan and other repressive
Arab neighbors. Arafat introduced military trials and Palestinians were horrified
to discover that the Palestinian Authority, and not just Israel, also detained
and tortured Palestinians with often little reason. I would hear from Palestinians
that it was worse for them when their fellow Palestinians were the ones doing
She added, "After years of struggle and sacrifice for Palestine, Palestinians
deserve a free and democratic state. I hope they insist it be nothing like the
Arab states that have fought several wars with Israel ostensibly in the name
of such a Palestinian state."
(Inter Press Service)