2016 a bleak year for journalists in the Gulf

2016 a bleak year for journalists in the Gulf
For journalists in the Gulf region, 2016 was a grim one with press freedoms curtailed and financial woes from low oil prices biting the Middle East's wealthiest nations.
5 min read
28 December, 2016
2016 is the bleakest year in recent memories for press freedoms in the region [AFP]
Press freedoms in the Gulf region took a serious hit in 2016, while financial woes from low prices piled on further pressure for media outlets in the Middle East's wealthiest nations.

Gulf countries saw their already low press freedom index rankings slip further in 2016, in a report put together by media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB). 

Journalists in the Gulf continued to work in a stifling environment of censorship, where authorities often intervene directly or indirectly in their work.

Saudi Arabia had the worst record for press freedoms in the Gulf region, which saw their ranking slip one place to 165 in the world. 

In comparison, Mauritania - at rank 48 - had the most free press in the Arab world. Near the bottom of the rankings was Syria at 177, where an active rebellion against a brutal dictatorial regime is ongoing and has seen it retain the title of worst press freedoms in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia unchanged

Despite a change of administration, Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the most restricted media environments in the world, a Freedom House report said this year. Although social media has provided a conduit for access to news "it too is being suppressed as the government seeks to silence criticism of its domestic policies and its war in Yemen".

Writers and activists critical of the Saudi government or who cover sensitive subjects such as Islam continue to face harsh punitive measures, the report said. 

While Saudi Arabia continues its military offensive in Yemen, Riyadh has worked on pushing for positive media coverage of the campaign. This has been acheived by cracking down on domestic dissent and restricting access to Yemen for foreign journalists, Freedom House said.

The remaining Gulf Arab countries were ranked 103 (Kuwait), 117 (Qatar), 119 (UAE), Oman (125) and 162 (Bahrain). 

Kuwait slips

While Kuwait ranked better than its neighbours it has lost considerable ground in the last few years. The oil-rich emirate is known in the region as being one of the most politically vibrant in the Gulf. It had boasted one of the most active media scenes in the region, but being placed 103 for 2016 - compared to 60th seven years earlier - indicates the government's growing intolerance towards political news or commentary, wrote the English-language Kuwait Times in December.

Of particular concern in Kuwait was the 2015 cybercrimes law and the 2016 e-media law, which placed further limits on press freedoms.

For instance, criticism of the emir, Islam and the judiciary can all lead to heavy punishments, as is "harming Kuwait's relations with other countries". In recent years, several journalists, bloggers and media activists have faced jail time, according to the Times.

Qatari censorship

Qatar is home to the prestigious and outspoken Al-Jazeera news network but despite this the Gulf state continues to suffer low press freedom rankings. Doha authorities had released a dissident poet earlier this year, but Qatar continues to be accused of heavy censorship when it comes to local outlets such as Doha News.

The website was blocked by telecom providers - apparently at the behest of the government - after publishing a series of sensitive articles on homosexuality in the emirate.

Under Qatar's 2014 cybercrimes law, authorities can ban websites that they deem to be threatening to the country's safety. Individuals may also be prosecuted for online posts that are judged to undermine Qatar's "social values or general order". 

Orwellian Emirates

Beyond the pristine skyscrapers of Dubai, the UAE, which ranks at 119 in the global press freedom index, has on several occasions been accused of repressing its critics using its cybercrimes law.

The Gulf state's stringent law has been slapped on social media activists and others who support and defend freedom of expression online. It has highlighted a shrinking space for dissent in the Gulf state, year after year.  Possibly the most iconic of its black marks is the case of the "UAE 94", which left dozens of government critics, prominent academics and human rights defenders, among others behind bars.

While the emirates continues to promote a well-kept image, the country has slapped stern punishments on those who risk tarnishing the reputation of the state.

Silence in the Sultanate

Although deemed by many to be the least-troubled of the pack, the Sultanate of Oman stands at a lowly 125th in the world press freedom index.

It has recently faced an influx of statements from leading human rights organisations calling on Sultan Qaboos bin Said to respect freedom of expression and refrain from the systematic targeting of journalists within its borders.

In September 2016, Omani courts ordered the closure of the independent Azamn newspaper and jailed three of its leading journalists after publishing a report accusing unnamed officials of influencing the chief magistrate of the supreme court to intervene in judicial proceedings.

Bahrain: Crackdown continues

At 165 on the press freedom index, the Kingdom of Bahrain has struggled to provide space for its citizens to question and criticise state policies without facing repercussions.

Despite the funds pumped into rebranding its public image, the small but influential Gulf state has faced several years of unrest from its majority Shia community demanding equality and government reforms.

Thousands of Bahrainis have been cuffed, silenced and tortured in jail for leading protests. Hundreds of human rights defenders and academics - including many young Arab Spring protesters - remain imprisoned nearly six years after the February 14 protests.   

Financial hardship

While oppressive laws make it hard for journalists to freely express opinions and publish information, non-state-owned mediums have been hit hard in recent years due to a lack of funding from low oil prices.

This has resulted in some newspapers and magazines sacking journalist while others were forced to cease print altogether.

Among the publications left parched was Riyadh-based al-Hayah newspaper, which laid off several staff members, as well as the UAE's 7 Days that completely collapsed due to economic burdens.

While financial problems have ravaged media outlets due to the demise of the print press business model and dwindling ad revenues, the absence of professional associations for journalists in many Gulf countries put immense pressure on independent journalism in the region, with few signs of remedy.

Editor's note: The New Arab is blocked in a number of Arab countries, including the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.