Press freedom and the Arab Spring, ten years on

Ten years ago last Thursday, the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia and his regime fell. He had been under intense public pressure for several weeks, ever since a fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his treatment by police, sparking mass protests. The fall of Ben Ali was a seminal moment in the wave of regional uprisings that quickly came to be known as the Arab Spring, with demonstrators from North Africa to the Gulf demanding economic dignity, democracy, and greater freedoms, including of speech and the press. The protests were documented on social media, including by citizen journalists who relayed compelling scenes of repression and revolution across the world.

Tunisia has since embarked on a transition to democracy, and journalists have been among the beneficiaries. In 2010, the country ranked one-hundred-and-sixty-fourth (out of one-hundred-and-seventy-eight countries) on Reporters Without Borders’s press-freedom index; last year, it ranked seventy-second. (For context, the US ranked forty-fifth.) “Freedom of expression is one of the gains of the revolution in 2010, whether in the media or on social networks, or simply in cafes as a fear that once reigned has truly dissipated,” Layli Foroudi, a freelance journalist who has written for CJR on the push to reform Tunisia’s state news agency, told me last week. In her two years reporting out of Tunis, the country’s capital, Foroudi says that the authorities have approved her press accreditation without any problems—a far cry from the Ben Ali era, when Abdelwahab Abdallah, an official known locally as “Tunisia’s Goebbels,” sought to control journalists’ speech—and independent outlets such as Inkyfada, a news site that worked on the Panama Papers and other transnational investigations, have flourished. Many challenges remain, however. Over the years, the government has continued to harass reporters, and the climate has worsened since the election, in 2019, of President Kais Saied; last year, two bloggers, Anis Mabrouki and Hajer Awadi, were prosecuted for criticizing Tunisia’s response to the pandemic. (Mabrouki was acquitted; Awadi was convicted then freed on appeal.) “Old habits among long-time staffers die hard and corrupt practices remain,” Foroudi says. In recent days, protests have flared again, and the authorities have responded with mass arrests.

New from CJR: Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman on Capitol coverage in the new Washington

Beyond Tunisia, the picture—both for democracy and for the media—is significantly bleaker. In the months following the Arab Spring, countries whose old regimes fell failed to codify advances in media freedom, and regimes that survived cracked down on dissenting voices with fresh vigor; by 2015, regional journalism associations had concluded that, on the whole, press freedom was even worse than it had been prior to the uprisings. “Media organs that had proved crucial to the uprisings degenerated with dismaying rapidity into highly partisan platforms serving state authorities or political factions,” Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, wrote that year in the Journal of Democracy, and “both mass media and social media magnified the fear and uncertainty that inevitably accompany transitions.” In the years since, journalists working in many Middle Eastern countries have been variously arrested, jailed, and expelled, or harassed with bogus lawsuits, spyware, and coordinated pro-regime troll swarms on social media. In all, the story of the last decade has been one of an “unprecedented toll paid mostly by local journalists who, in wave after wave, have faced retaliation—many of them because of their role in covering the protests,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me recently. By the end of 2020, “one of every three journalists behind bars worldwide was in the Middle East.”

That is true thanks, in no small part, to Egypt, where the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013, has become one of the world’s most prolific jailers of journalists, as well as strangling online news sites and formalizing highly restrictive speech laws. “As leaders around the world take aim at ‘fake news,’” Ruth Margalit wrote for CJR in 2019, “Egypt’s efforts may be the most brutal, and the most foreboding.” Since 2010, the country has dropped nearly forty places on RSF’s index and is now among the fifteen worst countries for press freedom globally. Bahrain—where the ruling dynasty survived mass protests and has since clamped down hard on reporters and citizen journalists, including by stripping some of them of their citizenship—dropped twenty-five places since 2010 and sits even lower than Egypt. Libya, Syria, and Yemen—which all saw significant uprisings in 2011, and where local journalists have since been torn between competing factions amid years of brutal conflict—all remain near the bottom of RSF’s list; in Syria alone, hundreds of journalists, including the celebrated war reporter Marie Colvin, have been killed since 2011. The press-freedom climate has also stagnated or deteriorated in countries including Iraq, Jordan, Oman, and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia, of course, brazenly assassinated the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

“We have seen many prosecutions since 2015 targeting people for things they said on Twitter at the heat of the moment during the Arab Spring years. At the time, tweets felt ephemeral and most people never thought they would one day down the road come to haunt them,” a journalist in the Gulf region, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me. “Looking back now, it is hard not to feel that the window of freedom at the start of the Arab Spring was fleeting and deceivingly full of hope. What we are left with today is an atmosphere of fear where most people—including journalists—have to make a difficult choice between silence or exile.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Still, the decade marker is too soon to close the book on the Arab Spring, and the various regional pushes for democracy that have followed it. Journalists and activists in the region are quick to point out that young people in many countries are now less scared to confront power than their parents were. In Algeria, for instance, a street movement known as the Hirak sprung up in 2019 and forced the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s long-term president. The new administration has close ties to the old one and continued to suppress speech, including by jailing journalists and blocking news sites. But protests continued, too, well into 2020.

“Whichever way we look—to any country in the region and at any level—things look terrifying. But that’s not the full picture,” Alia Ibrahim, cofounder and CEO of Daraj, a Lebanon-based Arabic news site, told me this morning. “You can’t expect societies to change in months and years, and a closer look shows a lot has been achieved in the last decade.” She added, “The dreamers that took the streets ten years ago are maturing into reformers, in all fields—the media included. We should have no illusions. Today, we have no reason to celebrate any big successes, but we do have not only the right but the obligation to be hopeful that what we have started will eventually win. This is how history works and there is no turning back.”

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • Egypt: Earlier this month, a video that appeared to show that an Egyptian hospital had run out of oxygen—leading to the deaths of at least four coronavirus patients—went viral on social media. Egypt’s government denied that there was any oxygen failure, but an investigation conducted by Mona El-Naggar and Yousur Al-Hlou, of the New York Times, proved otherwise. Egypt has repeatedly punished journalists for reporting on the pandemic: last year, officials arrested Atef Hassaballah El-Sayed, the editor in chief of the newspaper Al-Qarar Al-Dawly, and expelled Ruth Michaelson, of The Guardian, for questioning the official case count. CJR has more on both incidents.
  • Ethiopia: CJR’s Feven Merid spoke with Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of the Addis Standard, in Ethiopia, amid escalating conflict and an attendant crackdown on press freedom in the country. “So little has changed,” Lemma says. “The independent media continues to struggle to assert our own editorial independence and get equal access to information. We have to rely on how the government media packages the narrative. We just take it from them, and we have so little room to scrutinize, to investigate.”
  • Uganda: Last week, officials in Uganda shut down the internet ahead of an election that returned President Yoweri Museveni, the thirty-five-year incumbent, to power; on Friday, his regime placed his opponent Bobi Wine, who alleges that the election was rigged, under house arrest. Yesterday, the government restored internet access, although, according to Netblocks, extensive restrictions still apply to messaging services.
  • Russia: On Sunday, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned in August, and has since been convalescing in Germany—returned to Moscow and was immediately arrested. Yesterday, a court remanded Navalny in custody for thirty days; in a YouTube message, he called on his supporters to “take to the streets” in protest. In August, I explained for CJR how Navalny’s case is linked to freedom of the press.


Other notable stories:

  • We continue to learn more about the insurrection: on Sunday, the New Yorker released astonishing footage that its reporter Luke Mogelson captured inside the Capitol (“I think Cruz would want us to do this”), and ProPublica pulled together hundreds of videos that the insurrectionists themselves uploaded to Parler, before that app went offline. Attention has started to turn to security issues around the inauguration, which is tomorrow; the AP reports that the FBI is vetting National Guard members assigned to the event amid fears of an inside attack. In the meantime, we have Trump’s last full day in office to contend with: we can expect pardons, a taped farewell address, and more nonsense like this.
  • Last night, Fox News debuted its new 7pm Eastern opinion show, with Brian Kilmeade as guest host; per the LA Times, Maria Bartiromo will also try out hosting the show, as will the Fox commentators Katie Pavlich, Rachel Campos-Duffy, Mark Steyn, and Trey Gowdy. According to the Washington Post, some network staffers have concerns about the line-up; one called Bartiromo’s inclusion “ludicrous and disheartening” since “she is among the most responsible for propagating the big election lie.” In other Fox News news, the Daily Beast reported last week that Suzanne Scott, the network’s CEO, and Jay Wallace, its president, may be on the way out. A Fox spokesperson rejected the premise of the story as “wishful thinking by our competitors.”
  • Yesterday, more than three-hundred public-radio employees and six institutions, including New York Public Radio and Nashville Public Radio, signed on to an open letter, coordinated by Celeste Headlee, calling for an anti-racist future for public media. “We hope to tear down public radio in order to build it back up,” the letter says. “We don’t critique our industry because we hate it, but because we love it and hope it can live up to a higher standard of inclusivity that serves our diverse communities.”
  • In other public-radio news, Nicholas Quah reports for Vulture that stations in Houston, Austin, Marfa, and LA will no longer syndicate The Daily, the flagship Times podcast, due to concerns over its handling of the recent controversy around another Times show, Caliphate, including the Daily host Michael Barbaro’s failure to disclose his ties to Caliphate producers. Barbaro has also been criticized for his hostile response to critics of Caliphate on social media; over the weekend, he apologized and pledged to do better.
  • In France, the sports newspaper L’Equipe has not been published for the last eleven days after staffers decided to call a strike in protest of a plan to cut jobs at the paper and its sister titles, which focus on cycling and soccer. Last week, one-hundred-and-eighty current and former athletes—including the basketball player Rudy Gobert and tennis star Yannick Noah—signed a letter in support of L’Equipe’s journalists. RFI has more.
  • HBO recently picked up The Investigation, a drama series based on the case of Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist who was murdered by a source in Denmark in 2017. Tobias Lindholm, the director, writes for The Guardian that he decided not to name Wall’s killer in the series, since he was already the subject of a “media circus” in Denmark; instead, Lindholm says that he chose to center Wall, her family, and “the humanity of it all.”
  • And Alex Janin, of the Wall Street Journal, discovered a field notebook that belonged to her grandfather, Arlie Schardt, who covered the civil-rights movement in Selma for Time magazine in 1965, and who died last year on the same day that police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. In his notebook, Schardt jotted down “a question that still resonates today,” Janin writes: “How much force is necessary to stop people who don’t fight back?”

ICYMI: Major stories you may have missed since the insurrection

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.