JERUSALEM—In the Arab world, being a journalist can be enough to get you thrown in jail. Just ask the staff of the progressive news website Yanair in Cairo. Two of the website’s editors, Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka, were arrested on May 1. They were jailed and charged with “spreading false news, endangering national security, and organizing illegal protests.”
Such ludicrous charges would be laughable in most Western countries, but the Arab world has its own set of rules. Even the most capable and respected Arab journalists work under intense pressure and great personal risk.
In this case, the men were taken by about four dozen armed police who stormed the Cairo Journalist Syndicate office. Three board members of the Journalist Syndicate who were later also arrested after publishing news of the raid will stand trial on June 4. They are charged with “spreading false news.”
At the end of 2015, Egypt ranked second only to China for the number of jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Authorities in Egypt are abandoning all restraint in their efforts to intimidate and silence the press,” said Committee to Protect Journalists Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour in a statement.
The situation in Egypt is not unique to the Arab world, which is made up of 22 countries and over 385 million people. The largest contingency of that population—over 85 million people—resides in Egypt. Members of the rest of the Arab world are spread out across places like Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank.
Though Syria is currently infamous for abhorrent working and living conditions for journalists—conditions that range from impossible to suicidal—journalists in countries like Turkey are experiencing cross-border impacts. Turkey is considered part of Europe and Central Asia by The World Bank and part of the Middle East by the U.S. government, yet Turkey’s extensive southern border with Syria has contributed to problems in southern Turkey.
“I know from interviews with dozens of Syrians and some foreign journalists that the situation is becoming much more dangerous, and people are trying to leave,” said Nadia Massih, CPJ’s Middle East correspondent, in a recent interview.
She added that Syrian journalists have been directly targeted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Turkey, including three cases in the past year alone. Although Massih acknowledges the worrying trend in Egypt, other countries are extreme cases.
“The biggest problems are in Iraq and Syria and Yemen,” Massih said. “You have places like Mosul [in Iraq], which is basically a media blackout. We have no idea what happens day to day in Mosul. It is probably the worst in every way.”
Mosul has been under the control of ISIS since June 2014.
In other regions that are comparably less tense but still extremely problematic, Arab journalists are often on the front lines of danger. During times of heightened security, war, or highly sensitive political elections, they can also become targets.
In Gaza, Sanaa Kamal has been working as a freelance journalist for 10 years as a videographer and writer. Her professional and personal lives are intertwined because of her location.
“Sometimes it can be dangerous because it is conflict zone,” said Kamal, who added that within the West Bank the political divisions between the leadership of political rivals Fatah and Hamas create tension for reporters. Arab journalists in the West Bank face the challenge of being recognized as legitimate journalists rather than local activists.
They sometimes get mixed up in danger when reporting on the conflict and have been injured during violent protests with the Israeli army.
Yet Gaza is immeasurably more dangerous than the West Bank largely because of the ruling presence of the terrorist organization Hamas.
“Hamas dominates the Gaza Strip,” Kamal said.
Khaled Abu Toameh, a distinguished senior fellow at the think tank Gatestone Institute in New York City, has written extensively on the subject of media in the Arab world. In these writings, Toameh describes freedom of speech in the Arab world as a “far-fetched dream.”
Case in point is the recent sweeping harassment of the pan-Arab media outlet Al-Arabiya television. The outlet is based in Dubai Media City in the United Arab Emirates and has a solid reputation among its counterparts in the Western world.
Just since April 2016, 35 journalists working for Al-Arabiya have been fired. Toameh states in a recent essay for the Gatestone Institute that the journalists are victims of “a campaign of intimidation and terrorism waged against them by Hamas and Hezbollah.”
“Life for Al-Arabiya reporters has never been easy,” Toameh writes. “Like most Arab journalists covering the Arab and Islamic countries, they too have long faced threats from various parties and governments.”
The “sad state of journalism in the Arab world,” as Toameh describes it, comes down to an “us and them” mentality.
“A journalist who does not agree to serve as a governmental mouthpiece is denounced as a ‘traitor,'” he writes.