Arab journalists, more than any other journalists around the world, need security. They need physical security and economic security as well as the security of strong laws and regulations. Being an independent journalist in the Arab world is not a very safe profession. If you are working in the two most media-productive areas in the Arab world (Iraq and Palestine) you are constantly in very direct danger. If you are a photographer or TV cameraperson the level of danger is much higher. The problem lately is that you can’t predict where the danger comes from. While traditional armies can be dangerous to independent journalists, internal struggles and unrestrained local groups and militias are rapidly becoming the main concern for the safety of journalists. But even if one’s life is not in direct danger, the most basic need of a journalist–to travel and move from one location to another–can be hampered by checkpoints and administrative roadblocks as well as unpredictable snipers and settlers. For those in areas where there is no violent conflict another fear is prevalent, that of losing your job. With so much partisan media in the Arab world these days, the economic factor becomes one of the greatest obstacles to independent media. Ensuring job security is probably the greatest cause of self-censorship. Journalists and editors often refrain from publishing the truth or different points of view of the truth simply because they are unsure whether they can get another job once they are fired for not toeing the line. In some cases the worry is not simply about being fired by your employer, but losing your job as a result of imprisonment by local authorities. Tens of media regulations across the region include clauses for imprisonment or high financial penalties for violating vague laws like hurting your country’s image abroad, “disturbing national unity or “undermining trust in local currencies. Even some of the more reform-minded Arab countries still refuse to legislate against arresting journalists for expressing an opinion or to pass laws guaranteeing access to information. Most Arab countries continue to monopolize control over radio and television either directly or in the hands of cronies close to the rulers. Yet despite these restrictions, the Arab media scene is changing thanks mainly to new media that has bypassed legal roadblocks through the use of satellite, internet and even handheld cell phones. The majority of Arabs today are young people who rarely pay attention to the media of the establishment. Unless that media changes and changes fast, this new generation will get almost all its information from alternative and unorthodox media sources, for better or for worse.
Daoud Kuttabis the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and the founder of the Arab world’s first internet radio, AmmanNet. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.