IPI Calls for Protection of Journalists in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen and Libya
Naomi Hunt, Press Freedom Adviser
The successful overthrow of long-time autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia has prompted demonstrations across the region – and corresponding attempts by the authorities and pro-regime supporters in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen and Libya to clamp down on the free flow of news. Although the violence in Bahrain and Yemen has reportedly decreased since Saturday, journalists still face the threat of attack. In Libya and Yemen, media blackouts continue as security forces continue the use of force against protesters.
Journalists were among those attacked during violence against protesters last week in the Bahrain capital of Manama. On 16 February, ABC journalist Miguel Marquez was attacked while on air by truncheon-wielding thugs. A helicopter fired on two New York Times journalists who were filming, the newspaper reported on Friday. Conditions appear to be improving for media in the country since the violence subsided. The Manama-based Gulf Daily News reported today that a makeshift media centre has been established at Pearl Roundabout, the heart of demonstrations, so that journalists can check email and upload data.
A major opposition-led demonstration in Iran’s capital city Tehran this weekend was met with force by Iranian security and pro-regime demonstrators. Journalists were prevented from covering this event, and the information ministry issued a warning to foreign media that their bureaus would be closed if they reported “negative articles,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, two German reporters who have been in prison for four months were released yesterday after a visit by the German foreign minister over the weekend. The Bild am Sonntag reporters, Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch, were arrested on 10 October after they interviewed the lawyer and son of a woman who had been sentenced to death on the accusation of illegally entering the country on tourist visas.
The foreign media have been restricted in their ability to cover events in Iran since mid-2009, when the government cracked down on a protest movement that followed allegedly flawed presidential elections.
In Yemen, twelve people have died in the violence surrounding protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, AFP reported today. Since the demonstrations began 11 days ago, dozens of journalists have reportedly been attacked and beaten, or had their equipment broken.
Yemen Times reporter Sadeq Al-Wesabi told IPI by phone from Sanaa that conditions have improved over the last week, particularly since the president called for the police to protect protestors and journalists on Saturday - a call which was reportedly repeated today.
But Al-Wesabi also said that police have not “completely implemented” this order, and journalists are still sometimes prevented from taking pictures in the capital. The reporter saw what he believes were national security forces attacking two Western journalists on the Saana University campus on Saturday evening, although the reporters were defended by the anti-government protesters. Al-Wesabi said that several of his colleagues from other newspapers and television stations have been attacked or had their equipment broken. “When I take pictures I am afraid they will beat me or break my camera,” he said.
In Libya, where both the violence and secrecy have been most intense in recent days, foreign journalists continue to be denied entry into the country, forcing news outlets to rely on witness accounts. Internet and mobile telephone network access has been sporadic.
Today, as protests spread from the east to the capital, the building that houses Al Shababiya satellite channel and state-run Channel 2 television was “ransacked” and burned, Al Jazeera English and the Wall Street Journal reported today. Al Jazeera reported that their broadcasts have been jammed intermittently for months, but that the jamming was “stepped up” since Friday.
One reporter told the Wall Street Journal that he knew of local journalists in Tripoli who spoke with Arab media and were “arrested within minutes,” the publication reported on its website.
“Now more than ever, citizens in the Middle East and North Africa must be able to report on and access news of events in the region,” said IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills. “Journalists must be allowed to enter and travel freely within Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Iran without fear of attack or arrest.”
Despite restrictions, word of the protests and the measures taken against them has leaked out via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media, and most major foreign news outlets are asking those on the ground to upload videos and get in touch. As in Egypt and Tunisia, witnesses and journalists are showing that press freedom restrictions cannot stop the flow of information.