Press Freedom Index: MENA countries go from bad to worse for journalists

Press Freedom Index: MENA countries go from bad to worse for journalists
Most countries in the MENA region have become more hostile to journalists, according to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index.
3 min read
03 May, 2023
Press freedom is under attack in the MENA region [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

Most Arab states saw a decline in press freedoms over the past year, according to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index

The report, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to review the state of journalism around the world, concluded that press freedom in several major Arab countries - including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Jordan - remains extremely low.  

"Whether suppressed by authoritarian rulers or censored by rebel militias, the freedom to report the news is heavily curtailed in the Middle East, where the situation is classified as 'very serious' in more than half of its countries," the report stated. 

Syria (175), Saudi Arabia (170), Yemen (168), Iraq (167) and Egypt (166) are near the very bottom of the index, which ranks 180 countries by freedom of the press. 

Syria remains one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, with reporters there often caught in the crossfire between the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, regional militias, and Turkish troops. 

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Monarchies in the Gulf states are resorting to surveillance and censorship to muzzle the media. 

Saudi Arabia has fallen four places from last year as Riyadh continues its crackdown against journalists and dissidents.

"Emboldened by the impunity enjoyed by the crown prince in connection with the Khashoggi murder, the Saudi kingdom continues to repress journalists, sentencing them to long prison terms, banning them from leaving the country, and keeping them under close surveillance, even when abroad," read the report. 

Egypt has been a dangerous place for journalists ever since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power after deposing the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi in a coup in 2013. Sisi has since launched a massive crackdown on journalists critical of his government. 

"Pluralism is almost non-existent in Egypt," reads the report. "Independent media are censored and targeted by prosecutors. As for television and radio, their popularity has confined them to the role of relaying political propaganda."

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Qatar is one of the few countries in the region that rose in the ranking and is up 14 places to 105th. The report states this is likely thanks to its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, when authorities loosened some of the country's media laws. 

Palestine has also risen 14 places in the ranking, but the Palestinian territories remain extremely dangerous for journalists as Israeli forces routinely attack journalists with impunity, as exemplified by the killing of prominent Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot by Israeli forces last May.

Israel is ranked 97th, but Arab journalists face more difficulties in their reporting compared to their non-Arab counterparts. Palestinian journalists in particular are routinely targeted.

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Conditions have also worsened across North Africa, as several countries - most notably Algeria and Tunisia - continue to drift towards authoritarianism. 

Press freedom in Tunisia in particular has deteriorated quickly as a result of President Kais Saied’s "growing authoritarianism and inability to tolerate media criticism", RSF said.

Tunisia enjoyed a good spell of press freedom after an uprising overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011.

The 2023 index concluded that press freedom was slipping around the world, and that the environment for journalists was good in only three out of every ten countries. State-sponsored surveillance, censorship, and disinformation have made an already perilous environment worse for journalism.