North Africa’s Alarming Record on Press Freedom
By Cole Paxton
Photograph of Tunisian protester courtesy of Reuters
In the past several months, international atrocities have left scores dead in Egypt and Tunisia.
Getting reliable information about the tragedies in those countries, however, is far from easy.
In the aftermath of this month’s Russian jet crash near Sharm el Sheikh, widely believed to have been brought down by militants, Egyptian authorities temporarily detained Hossam Bahgat. Bahgat, a highly regarded investigative journalist, frequently criticizes the government. Neighboring Tunisia has imposed similar limits on its media. As the country reels from the ramifications of a major terrorist attack last June,, government officials have hampered the work of Sihem Benesdrine, head of the national Truth and Dignity Commission.
While Bahgat was released after just 48 hours behind bars, his detention is part of a worrying trend across the region. Egyptian state media generally asserted that Bahgat was promoting a conspiracy theory with his reporting. Authorities also suspended Azza al-Hanawy, a television presenter for a state-run entity, for criticizing President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Ironically, the release announcing al-Hanawy’s suspension chided her for her “lack of neutrality and objectivity.” It added that she inappropriately “expressed personal views on a news programme.”
In nearby Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, press freedom statistics are similarly deplorable. Morocco, the highest rated North African nation in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index was ranked 130th. Egypt placed 28 spots lower, behind nations distinguished for their press crackdowns such as Mexico and Russia.
Libya in particular poses a difficult challenge for journalists. The press faced heavy restrictions under the iron fist of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Today, the country has splintered into two main rival governments, both of which actively work to contain media access. Libya stood at a meager 154th place on this year’s World Press Freedom Index. Even after Gaddafi’s downfall, Libyan reporters face serious obstacles.
In 2014 Libyan television journalists were kidnapped in no fewer than four separate incidents, while the editor of a weekly newspaper was murdered. Violence spilled over to neighboring Algeria, where last year police beat a reporter covering election-related demonstrations, and officials stole and destroyed equipment from a private television broadcaster.
Tunisia appears to be the area’s bright spot. It was the only nation in the region not to receive a “Not Free” status in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press reports; instead it was considered “Partly Free,” just one step up.
A provision in Tunisia’s 2014 constitution guarantees “freedoms of opinion, thought, expression, information, and publication.” Nevertheless, government agencies fined dissenting radio and television stations over $400,000 last year and banned a controversial talk show for a month.
Benesdrine, a career journalist and human rights activist, is finding her ability to uncover and report past atrocities in Tunisia more challenging with each passing day.
She recently told The New York Times that both government employees and members of the media create smear campaigns in hopes of denigrating her and her work. President Beji Caid Essebsi has introduced a law that would significantly constrain her investigations.
Benesdrine’s case is a poignant example of the state of the press in North Africa today. Compared to its neighbors, Tunisia looks like a reporter’s paradise. Even in Tunis, however, a crackdown on freedom of expression is prevalent.
Major issues continue to face the region today. Instead of being able to form their own opinions, Egyptians will be brainwashed to believe that militants most certainly did not bring down a Russian airliner, and Libyans will continue to hear that anyone remotely related to Islamism is bad. The one thing they won’t learn, however, is the truth.