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May 02, 2014

The State of Press Freedom Worldwide

By Molly Hofsommer

Saturday May 3rd marks World Press Freedom Day, which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom and highlights the state of press freedom throughout the world.  The day marks an opportunity to address the many grave threats and violations of press freedom that continue to occur around the world-- including in some of the United Sates’ strongest allies, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, where news providers and sources are continual targets of repressive regimes.

The situation for freedom of the press in Bahrain is increasingly bleak. While in a state-sponsored press release the Bahraini government “celebrates the objectivity enjoyed by local press,” Freedom House ranks the gulf kingdom as "Not Free" and identifies a continuing negative trend for the status of individual rights and civil liberties. From before the popular uprising began in Bahrain in 2011 to today, the nation has seen a dramatic decline in press freedom, with the second-worst decline in the world from 2009-2013 according to Freedom House’s rankings. 

Today, bloggers, journalists, and photographers are continually targeted by the Bahraini regime’s persistent crackdown on dissent. Just this past week, well-known press photographer Hussain Hubail and cyber-activist Jassim Al-Nuaimi were sentenced with five year prison terms.  These are only two of the nine news providers currently detained or sentenced to long jail terms. Earlier this month, photographer Abdullah Salman Al Jerdabi was sentenced to six months in prison for charges including “misuse of social networks” and blogger Ali Maaraj was sentenced to 30 months in prison for charges including “improper handling of information technology.”

In the name of national security, Bahrain has also amped up internet surveillance. Despite the high levels of internet coverage and availability in Bahrain, the kingdom’s level of filtering and surveillance is some of the highest in the world.  In 2012, Reporters without Borders added the Gulf nation to its list of “Enemies of the Internet”.  With draconian degree laws, an opaque National Security Apparatus that monitors any activity that could endanger the kingdom and its institutions, and frequent censorship of websites critical of the regime, Bahrain is gagging citizens’ ability to express their opinion and attempting to silence their demands for reform.

Saudi Arabia has earned the notable classification as one of the “worst of the worst” countries by Freedom House for its disdainful record on political rights and civil liberties.  Freedom of the press is threatened by increasingly restrictive policies toward the internet and social media outlets.  Currently, the state is researching methods to regulate YouTube, including the possibility of requiring some users to obtain government-issued licenses to produce and post content.  Considering that Saudi Arabia has the world’s highest per-captia use of YouTube and that the website has witnessed an explosion of new content coming from Saudi users, these potential restrictions would have serious implications for the citizens of the gulf Kingdom.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has threatened to block several other popular internet chat, call, and messaging services such as Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, reminiscent of the controversial BlackBerry ban threatened in 2010.  News providers face severe punishment for producing content critical of the Kingdom, as seen in the case of human rights defender and blogger Fadhel Al Manafes who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for charges including “publishing articles and communicating with foreign journalists with the aim of harming the state’s image.”

In Egypt, the government shuts down dissenting political voices in the media, jailing foreign journalists from Al Jazeera and charging them with aiding terrorists. As the country prepares for an election, the  current military-backed government has targeted individuals critical of its authority or of its leader, Chief General Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Popular satirist Bassem Youssef’s has been pulled from the air waves until after the Egyptian Presidential Elections are over at the end of this month.

Unfortunately, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are only a few of the many U.S. allies where freedom of the press remains a serious struggle such as Turkey, where ten journalists were sentenced to ten months in prison for an insulting tweet of the Prime Minister. Just as the United Nations and UNESCO call on all States, societies, and individuals to actively defend freedom of expression and press freedom, the United States must encourage the same of its close allies.