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The Middle East has consistently been one of the most dangerous regions in the world for journalists and media workers in recent years. Many journalists – some celebrated and many less widely known – have died or spent years in prison while attempting to report on the many injustices facing the people of the Middle East.
“Journalism is a way to perceive the world and journalists have a sense of justice,” Ana Avila, the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan, told Fanack. “Journalists don’t accept things as they are and in that spirit they go to the places that are dangerous to bring to the citizens the information they need to know about the atrocities we as human beings commit in other countries or in our own countries.”
Bringing light to injustice has put many journalists in the Middle East on the wrong side of autocratic regimes and landed them in jail. In 2021, 488 journalists were detained globally – more than any other year since Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) began keeping records. While China is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, statistics from RSF paint a daunting image for reporters in the region.
As of March 2022, 31 journalists or bloggers are in Saudi Arabia’s prison network, making the oil-rich kingdom the world’s fifth largest jailer of journalists in the world. While Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known more commonly as MBS, has made strong efforts to publicize certain liberalization and modernization efforts, Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent is as strong as ever. The kingdom handed a 15-year prison sentence – the world’s longest for a journalist – to Ali Aboluhoom, a Yemeni, for tweets that Saudi authorities claimed spread “ideas of apostasy, atheism and blasphemy.”
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was released from prison in 2022 after serving the entirety of his ten year prison sentence. He’s still subject to a 10 year travel ban and thus unable to join his family in Canada. Badawi was also sentenced to one thousand lashes but only received 50 after public outcry brought attention to the issue.
In recent years, Egypt has also featured prominently in the world’s top jailer of journalists but dropped out of the top five this year after releasing 21 journalists and arresting some others, according to RSF.
Many of the journalists in jail are people who dared to oppose the leading powers, many with modest criticisms. Of course, as is the case with the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the penalty for dissent proved tragic.
Khashoggi was brutally murdered by a hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence agencies found that MBS approved the assassination.
Elsewhere in the region, Syria, Yemen and Iraq have been notoriously perilous for people working in the media. The death of journalists reached a global 20 year low in 2021, with 46 killed.
Journalists are under threat from numerous elements in the region. Both by government, as was the case with Khashoggi or the numerous journalists killed by the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war, and by non-state actors alike.
With 18 journalists killed in the last five years, Yemen is the world’s third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, tied with India. In 2021, Rasha Abdallah Alharazy, a Yemeni TV reporter was killed in a targeted car bomb attack in Aden, Yemen’s provisional capital. She was one of four women journalists killed in 2021.
In Lebanon, journalist and political activist Lokman Slim was killed in what is believed to be a targeted assassination in 2021. Slim, a prominent Shia, had been a vocal critic of Hezbollah, and their political ally Amal, and had received numerous death threats from the group, according to his wife. Slim follows Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni and others in a long line of Lebanese journalists and intellectuals who have been assassinated or had attempts on their lives. None of these acts of violence against journalists have led to any convictions.
Syria fell off the list of most deadly countries for journalists in 2021, but it’s still in the top three over the past five years. The war was particularly deadly during the years 2012 – 2015 where the Islamic States famously captured and publicly killed journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. More than 100 journalists have been killed in Syria since 2011, the vast majority of whom are Syrian journalists. Many of these journalists have been forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime or captured by militants with the Islamic State and thus are not yet officially reported dead. This is the case for Razan Zaitouneh, a journalist and human rights defender abducted in 2013 by an unidentified group and presumed dead.
Noted war correspondent Marie Colvin also was killed by regime attacks in Homs in February 2012 while just days earlier Anthony Shadid, the New York Times Beirut bureau chief, died of what is thought to be an asthma attack while reporting in Syria.
The tragic loss of so many lives raises serious industry-wide concerns about not only safety but also the ethics of some of the media companies engaged. The reasons for covering the region, as well as the institutional backing, can differ substantially. Many journalists work in environments that do not provide enough assistance or, in some cases, safety equipment.
“Journalists are very vulnerable and especially in these situations, they are willing to take more risks because they need a job and sometimes the company is not offering any security and they still go and I think this is something we need to speak up, something we need to speak about,” Avila said.
Avila added that many freelancers in particular will travel together to split costs. Some will enter dangerous areas without proper safety equipment due to its heavy cost. Many outlets will profit off freelancers’ work but refuse to take on any of the risk or responsibility.
“Everyone is saying freedom of expression is threatened but we don’t say what’s behind and what the companies are doing to journalists,” Avila said.
Journalists are also under threat of being picked up by various non-state actors or militant movements. Out of 65 journalists abducted globally, 64 are being held in three Middle Eastern countries – Syria, Yemen and Iraq – in 2021.
Syria is by far the leader with 44 abducted there. The Islamic State – working in Syria and Iraq – was the leader in this category, holding 28 journalists, while the Houthi rebel group in Yemen was second with 8. In Syria, the group Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham, who controls northern Idlib, remains the biggest threat in Syria holding 7 journalists, including four this year – Khaled Hseno, Adham Dashrne and the brothers Bashar and Mohamed Alshekh.
Confronting harsh realities and putting their lives at risk can also come with unwanted consequences beyond death and detention. Many journalists in the region will suffer from various traumas and struggle with mental health too.
“There is a lot of alcoholism, depression and other substance abused among journalists because they just need to keep going,” Avila said. “It’s been in the last decade or 15 years since we started to speak about trauma among journalists.”