A foreign journalist was driving on a road near the rebel-held city of Raqqa in north-east Syria confident that he was safe because he was travelling with a commander in the Free Syrian Army and militiamen. They were stopped at a checkpoint manned by al-Qa’ida-linked fighters who promptly kidnapped both the journalist and his FSA protectors.
It was one of many similar incidents to have taken place in Syria, a place that is becoming increasingly dangerous for foreign and local journalists as they are targeted by kidnappers seeking ransoms while the leaders who used to protect them can no longer protect themselves.
Two years ago a new era, in which freedom of expression would be the norm, was confidently predicted to be dawning in the Middle East and beyond. Censorship was being circumvented by satellite television and the internet. Social media and YouTube was making it impossible for old-fashioned police states to suppress the truth about their crimes.
Unfortunately, it has not turned out that way. Re-asserted state control of information and intimidation of journalists and their employers is proving all too effective. In many countries freedom to publish dissident views is less that it was before the protests and uprisings of 2011.
Re-invigorated authoritarian governments have no doubt that they need to clamp down hard. A secret recording of an officer speaking to Egypt’s military ruler, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, sometime before his coup on 3 July, shows generals debating the best way to suppress or control the media. “We must re-establish red lines for the media,” the officer says. “We need to find a way of neutralising them… We should engage with these people directly and individually and either terrorise them or win them over.”
This has not proved too difficult as much of the media was always hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and those critical of the military regime are being suppressed or jailed. Al-Jazeera satellite television, once lauded for its fearless coverage of the anti-Mubarak uprising of 2011, has two of its journalists in jail and must conceal the names of its correspondents.
Reflecting on what went wrong, an Egyptian journalist said: “Post the fall of Mubarak, journalists in Egypt did not think about how to institutionalise freedom of speech. We were obsessed with getting rid of individuals. But all private media in Egypt is owned by businessmen who made their money under and through Mubarak.” Aside from this, the media and their customers have a common disillusionment with the high hopes of the Arab Spring and, in the words of another Middle-East-based journalist, they have “a huge sense of failure and crave the old certainties.”
Independence of the media is not just faltering in countries that experienced the Arab Spring. In Turkey, the government is putting intense pressure on businesses with a stake in the media to remove those journalists criticising the actions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. Some 22 journalists have been sacked and 37 forced out of their jobs since the Gezi Park protests in early June, according to Reporters Without Borders . “Firing people puts news rooms on the leash,” says Yavuz Baydar, a columnist who was himself sacked by the daily Sabah newspaper. “All stories that are about misuse of power and corruption will be filtered and ignored by a timid, self-censoring media.”
In the eyes of many younger Turks much of the media discredited itself permanently at the time of the mass demonstrations over Gezi Park by simply pretending it was not happening. Mr Baydar says that the upper middle class media, which had not been much concerned when the government persecuted Kurdish journalists, suddenly found that they were in the firing line. He adds that “media managers are doing huge damage to democracy by their unholy alliances with the government”.
The ever-increasing limitations on freedom of expression are not all the fault of authoritarian governments and Jihadi insurgents. Satellite television did much to open up debate in the Arab world over the last 15 years, but from 2011 on it became a partisan and unreliable participant in political confrontation and civil wars in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and beyond. Innovations in information technology which once seemed so progressive became instead a conduit for propaganda and hate.