Try not to insult the dictator, OK?


That all governments seek to control all media is the first rule of media politics. More authoritarian governments use extreme measures, to the complaints of media watchers. Dictators pay no attention.

The six countries of North Africa have a less than impressive record for viable, independent media. Broadcasting is mostly State controlled. The internet is policed. The few independent newspapers are discouraged from publishing anything other than happy news favorable to the rulers. Laws are written – and sometimes mysteriously re-written – to prevent any hint of dissent.

Libya is North Africa’s worst example of media repression. Enriched by oil exports and fueled by its leverage, Libya’s ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has kept a tight lid on the country’s media – and everything else – for four decades.

Eyes were opened, albeit squinting, three years ago (August 2006) when Col. Gaddafi’s eldest son, Saif al-Islam, called for more press freedom in Libya. “We have no free press,” he said in a televised speech – State TV, obviously. “Journalism means nothing when it’s controlled and written by a limited number of people.” Shortly thereafter the Al Ghad Company, a company controlled by Saif al-Islam, was granted authorization to open a television channel, two radio stations and two newspapers.

The television channel – Al Libia – was considered a bit of a breath of fresh air in the midst of stifling government controlled media. It was short lived. In April the Libyan media regulator Jamihiriya Radio General Authority took control of Al Libia, its managing director ‘detained’. Radio stations Al Libiya and Eman and newspapers Quryna and Oea were also nationalized. All are now owned and operated by the State broadcaster National Media Services Center. Al Libia is reportedly ‘relocating’ to London to operate as a satellite TV channel.

The Libyan ruler exercises his influence across borders. Col. Gaddafi brought a lawsuit against three Moroccan newspapers – al-Jarida al-Aoula, al-Ahdat al-Maghribia, and al-Massai – and their reporters to a Moroccan court. Claiming ‘defamation’ under the Moroccan Press Law, Col. Gaddafi was awarded damages (June 29) by the Court of First Instance in Casablanca. Morocco’s National Press Syndicate said the case was the first of a foreign ruler using defamation clauses in the Moroccan law to punish local media.

Defamation clauses are common in North African country’s media laws, typically used to prevent criticism of rulers, their clans and religion. Chapter 52 of the Moroccan Press Law ascribes penalties for “publicly defaming state presidents and foreign ministers of foreign countries.” Libya’s Col. Gaddafi is not, technically, head of state, but called Supreme Guide.

Earlier this year (February 25) blogger Hassan Barhon was jailed under the Moroccan Press Law for “defaming a member of the judiciary.” Another blogger, Mohamed Erraji, was given a two year prison sentence last September for “failing to respect the king.” In its report on press freedom worldwide (May 2009), the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) noted a measurable decline in press freedom in Morocco saying, “a pluralistic press that has developed quickly over recent years has been sacrificed to strict limitations on what can be reported on.”

The Rabat newspaper Akhbar Al Youm charged last week (July 17) government involvement in the decision of a distributor to withhold the Thursday (July 16) edition of the French newspaper Le Monde. The Ministry of Communications denied any involvement.

Four new privately owned radio stations gained licenses this year (February 24) in the second round of broadcast licensing. Media regulator Haute autorité de la Communication Audiovisuelle (CSCA) suspended licensing of a new national television station, citing “reduced visibility” in the media sector.

Coverage of a national strike in February by State broadcaster Société Nationale de Radio-Télévision (SNRT) drew a slap from the CSCA (May 6) after complaints by unions. “The SNRT has not,” said the CSCA statement,“fulfilled its commitments related to pluralism, which is not only a right of social actors vis-à-vis the audiovisual operators, but mainly a right of the citizen that requires the operator to submit fair, impartial and objective information respecting the right of access to different points of view related to a current event that might be of interest…allowing formation of opinions and beliefs in freedom and objectivity.” The SNRT operates seven television channels, a national radio channel and several regional radio stations.

Algeria’s government has also taken to banning foreign newspapers. Ahead of the April elections, French weekly newspapers L’Express, Marianne and Le Journal du Dimanche were confiscated by authorities for publishing “contrary to Islamic and national values,” violating Article 26 of the 1990 Information Code. Managing editor of L’Express Christophe Barbier said Algerians “are mature enough to read and judge for themselves” and the episode was “extremely alarming.”

Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected president of Algeria for a third term. The government has kept absolute control over broadcasting since 1963.

Mauritania’s reputation for a more positive stance toward media and press freedom has been tarnished since the coup led by General Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz removed President Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallah last August. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called (March 18) on the military guys to “immediately halt its increasing persecution of critical journalists” after a journalist for the news website Taqadoumy was arrested (March 15) after writing an article critical of the generals. Police gassed and beat a group of journalists sitting in demonstration in front of United Nations offices in Nouakchott.

In 2007 Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) ranked Mauritania 50th of 169 countries in its Press Freedom rankings, the highest of all Arab countries. Improvements in media and press freedom, cited by RSF, came with the 2005 removal of the repressive leader Colonel Maaouya Ould Taya who often invoked Article 11 of national law to seize newspapers whenever displeased. When Col. Taya left town the law was overturned. The next ruler – Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallah – simply allowed lawsuits against journalists to continue.

Mauritanians went to the polls this past weekend (July 18) and, according to Reuters (July 19), General Abdel Aziz leads in the results. Neither the UN nor the European Union sent election monitors since all aid to Mauritania was cut off following the last coup.

Defamation laws intending to intimidate media and media workers are not unique to North Africa, Africa or Arab States. OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe) research officer Ilia Dohel, writing for Index on Censorship (June 23), notes that of the 56 OSCE countries, which include all European countries, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Canada and the United States, just seven do not criminalize defamation. Libel and defamation laws may have understandable intent, protecting the honor and dignity of individuals, but when used against media organizations the effect is “protecting the powerful from criticism.”

Michael Hedges via FollowTheMedia.com

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