THE BLOG
12/17/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Walking a Tightrope: News Media & Freedom of Expression in the Middle East

No entity could be walking a tightrope more than news media in the Middle East following a spate of uprisings, revolutions, regime changes and civil wars over the last two years.

Which makes analyzing trends and trying to project where news organizations are heading quite difficult, given fast evolving technologies and applications and a rapidly changing media landscape.

But analyze we did -- three women with an interest in how news media are navigating the region's choppy waters.

Layla Al Zubaidi, Susanne Fischer and I took on the daunting task of updating a 2004 study of news media in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, with the requisite addition to this newer version of Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" began.

Walking a Tightrope: News Media & Freedom of Expression in the Middle East

is a 162-page book available as a downloadable PDF that delves into legal, ethical, historical, geographic and professional issues in the countries surveyed.

The foreword to the book, funded by the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Stiftung's Middle East office, is particularly cogent:

"There is an ongoing debate on how far the Arab media have been, and will be, able to contribute to social and political change. The Arab "media revolution" has indeed transformed the sector, but has not necessarily diminished efforts to control these new channels of communication. A number of taboo topics continue to inflame the social and political arena. Media landscapes across different countries remain fairly uneven, as do political circumstances and social, economic, and intellectual environments. Yet, there are structural commonalities in the limits to freedom of expression, which deserve closer attention because they reflect the broader issue of rights and constraints in the region.

Although transnational media have rapidly expanded, Arab governments have not adequately responded to the quest for freedom of expression. They have recognized the threat as well as the financial potential of such media, often resulting in an ambivalent attitude and contradictory policies of restricting media, while opening new spaces of freedom. The current media sector embodies many of the paradoxes prevalent in the region."

The first chapter, inevitably, deals with rights and constraints by focusing on the interplay between media's entitlements, and, adherence to laws and national security considerations.

The chapter also draws attention to the prickly area of censorship and self-censorship, a regular staple in Arab countries.

The book explains the difference between preventive censorship (pre-publication), prohibitive (post-publication) and self-censorship, which many Arab journalists exercise as a form of preventive medicine -- better safe than sorry.

Revolutions notwithstanding, Arab states reviewed in the study still exercise one form of censorship or another.

"Despite their differences, and regardless of whether or not a country has media laws on the books, these states all share some of the same 'red lines' that journalists know are not to be crossed. Depending on the country in question, they are limited with varying degrees of flexibility in covering matters of sensitivity, such as stories concerning members of the government, religious figures and issues of 'national unity.'"

Chapter two zeroes in on media challenging the state's traditional grip on information, notably with transnational satellite TV channels, growth of the Internet and the explosion of citizen journalism.

"Since the outbreak of the Arab revolts, governments with stakes in satellites have exerted their influence to interrupt signals, halt broadcasts or bar stations from airing programs on certain 'birds.' The Qatar-based al-Jazeera has been the most obvious target, followed by al-Arabiya and others, which the regimes in Egypt and Libya, for example, considered hostile to their rule."

Chapter three is a key component of the media equation: ethics. The authors examine codes of good journalistic practice in the region to encourage professionally recognized standards. They urge journalists not to cave in to codes aimed at hampering news organizations.

"Given the Arab region's inconsistent application of ethical media standards, codes miss their target when employed to reinforce censorship and self-censorship, which already hamper the work of journalists."

The meatiest part of the book is chapter four on media legislation and freedom of expression in six countries rocked in recent years by war, revolution and instability.

The authors scrutinize print, radio, television and the Internet in Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq (pre- and post-U.S. invasion), Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and delve into the legal framework of each country.

A final chapter on resources is a useful reference listing media training organizations and institutes, networking efforts, and handy leads to advocacy and legal aid.

Layla Al-Zubaidi was director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Middle East Office in Beirut from 2006 to 2012. She currently heads the Southern Africa Office in Cape Town. She authored the first version of this report.

Magda Abu-Fadil is a Lebanese-American journalist, media trainer, and director of Media Unlimited, based in Lebanon.

Susanne Fischer is a German journalist, media trainer, and Middle East program manager for the International Institute for War and Peace Reporting, based in Beirut.