President Bush has said that making America more secure and defeating terrorists requires more democratic reforms in the Middle East.
Among the ways, he said during his State of the Union speech, were by ‘offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change.’
His Greater Middle East Initiative, launched two years ago, was supposed to do just that by transforming the region politically and economically.
With recent elections in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, one would think that freedom is on the march in the Middle East.
But democracies are not about elections alone. Other factors come into play, such as civil rights, social welfare and accountability.
One important measure of liberal nations is freedom of speech and press without fear of reproach. Oftentimes, government accountability follows from the freedom of expression.
Being a journalist in the Middle East can have fatal consequences, where the road to freedom is often paved with blood.
Last year in Lebanon, two journalists, one of whom was also a member of parliament, were assassinated in separate car bombings.
Their colleague, May Chidiac, a famous anchorwoman with the Lebanon Broadcast Corp. (LBC), lost part of her arm and leg when a bomb exploded in her car.
All three had been critical of the Syrian regime, which militarily occupied Lebanon until its recent withdrawal.
Iraq was supposed to be a beacon of democracy in the Middle East after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But the postwar insurgency has resulted in the death and injury of dozens of journalists.
Iraqi insurgents have kidnapped many journalists such as U.S. correspondent Jill Carroll, who remains missing since her abduction Jan. 7.
Recently, Atwar Bahjat, a 30-year-old correspondent for Al-Arabiya television, was shot dead along with two of her colleagues by assailants in Samarra.
In late January, ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, were injured when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 82 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war started in spring 2003.
In Damascus, Ayman Abdul Nour was the editor of the now-defunct website All4Syria.com, writing critical columns about the Syrian regime. The government shut down his website. As a recourse, Abdul Nour sent newsletters by e-mail, and the state responded by blocking them. But Abdul Nour continues to create e-mail addresses every week to get his message out.
When asked whether he feared the government would silence him permanently, Abdul Nour said, ‘I am afraid, but someone needs to speak out.’
At a recent Arab and World Media Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, nearly 1,000 international journalists, politicians and diplomats gathered to discuss the challenges of covering events in the Middle East.
In an interesting show of hypocrisy, many Arab politicians were more intent on blaming the West and its free media than putting their own houses in order.
‘Media is linking Arabs to terrorism,’ said Amre Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab States. ‘It is wrong to charge millions of people. It is an attack on Arabs, and it should not go without response.’ Though this might be true, one can only guess what type of response Secretary General Moussa had in mind.
For a conference on the media, world leaders were virtually silent on urging Arab governments to allow greater freedom.
The event’s main sponsors, the Emirate of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, are known for their monopolies over the media and suppression of speech.
In Dubai, a district called Media City, which is considered a ‘free-speech zone,’ hosts many of the world’s leading international media outlets, including CNN, BBC World Service and others.
At my hotel outside the ‘zone,’ I tried to read an article online but was denied access by government censors. A screen popped up saying the website did not conform to the Emirates’ social and religious values.
The Dubai Press Club chairperson, Mona Al Marri, explained that the government blocks mainly websites containing sexual content to protect family values. But the story I wanted to read was about Israel, not about sex.
As the Middle East experiences the growing pains of democratic change, the world has neglected the dire situation of press freedom in the region.
Perhaps President Bush would garner more international support for reform in the Arab world if he addressed the dismal state of free speech there. Even Arabs wouldn’t be able to argue with him on this point, at least not publicly.