Maghreb press freedom deteriorating, RSF study shows
By Jamel Arfaoui in Tunis, Naoufel Cherkaoui in Rabat and Fidet Mansour in Algiers for Magharebia– 03/11/10
Tunisia, Morocco and Libya fell sharply in this year's press freedom report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
For its 2010 Press Freedom Index, made public on Wednesday (October 20th), the international watchdog group assessed 178 nations for violations of journalists' independence, attacks and murders of individual reporters, censorship and presence of independent media outlets.
Algeria made tangible progress, rising from 141st to 133rd. Mauritania maintains the lead at 95th place.
Tunisia, however, slipped from 154th to 164th place. The country came under particular fire for a four-year imprisonment sentence against Al-Hiwar Ettounsi TV reporter Fahem Boukadous.
"Why are we surprised with our drop while the reality confirms that? There is incomprehensible, unjustified closure on journalists and freedom of news. There are other countries that suffer from political, economic and security problems and yet the margin of freedom there is much broader than in Tunisia," journalist Bassam Bounenni told Magharebia.
Tunisia overtook Libya as the lowest-ranked Maghreb country in the press index. Libya also fell in the rankings, from 156th to 160th.
"There are significant breakthroughs in the freedom of expression. However, the red lines declared by the Libyan government are still not up for discussion through online articles. Publication laws here are considered among the toughest in Arab countries," said Libyan journalist Ghaida Touati.
"The RSF report has undoubtedly been fair. There is one praiseworthy point in favour of the Libyan government, i.e. so far they haven't harassed any bloggers. However, blocking some internet websites constituted a major setback to the freedom of expression in Libya," Touati added.
Morocco also joined the downward trend, dropping from 127th to 135th.
"The freedom of media is not an issue subject to politicians' own moods and the fluctuations of political conditions," Organisation for Media Freedom and Expression chief Mohamed Aouni told Magharebia. "Any attack on freedom is an attack on the country's interests. There is a crackdown on free press, coupled with an establishment of tutelage and hegemony over the public media outlets that are originally financed by tax-payers."
"The current year didn't witness any trials or restrictions on the freedom of press with the same degree of severity as that of the past," National Moroccan Press Syndicate (SNPM) Secretary-General Muhamed Serraj countered. Serraj also cast doubt over the credibility of these reports, saying that the criteria used in the rankings are not clear.
Meanwhile, Algeria has made substantial progress, climbing eight spots from 141st place last year. However, Zied El Heni, from the Union of African Journalists, warned that this trend "doesn't mean that the press conditions have considerably improved in the country", adding that journalists still face harassment and financial strangulation through exorbitant fines, now used as an alternative to jailing journalists, and the progress is largely due to drop in rankings of many other countries.
"Another factor is the lack of a documented case in the halting of a newspaper's publication by decision of the government, whether for financial reasons related to the business relationship with the printing presses or reasons related to the terms of available press freedom, as there have been no new cases of imprisonment of a journalist because of his writings in a number of years" said Abdel Nour Boukhamkham, Sectary-General of the National Federation of Algerian Journalists.
Mauritania presents the most media-friendly environment in the Maghreb. Registering a five-point climb from last year, the country has witnessed a major shift in the field of audio-visual media after ratifying a law to liberate the sector.
"We praise this advanced step for the freedom of press in Mauritania," said RSF envoy to Africa Ambroise Pierre. "We're interested in seeing good and fair implementation of the law."
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