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TUNISIA, SAUDI ARABIA: Press freedom on the run

September 24, 2008 |  9:13 am

On Saturday evening, Tunisian Web journalist Slim Boukhidir was heading to a local Internet cafe in the city of Sfax when he was stopped by a group of men and stuffed into a French-made automobile.

CensorshipHe was taken first to a police station and then he found himself back in the car and heading outside of the city and into the rural hinterlands.

The car stopped and the journalist, who was freed last July after spending eight months in prison for publicly criticizing President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, was released without harm.

But not without a warning, according to an account he gave to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists:

After leaving the police station, they started insulting me and threatened to inflict on me the same fate of Libyan Internet journalist Daif Al Ghazal, kidnapped and killed in neighboring Libya in 2005.

The U.S. gets all hot and bothered about human rights abuses and suppression of speech in places such as Iran or Syria. But it has remained relatively silent about an apparent uptick in repression of journalists among its allies in the Arab world, like the staunchly pro-American Tunisia or Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday, a top cleric in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring that all writers who challenge religious leaders should be fired from their jobs, flogged and jailed, according to a news release issued by the CPJ.

Sheik Abdallah Ben Jabreen issued his edict on a privately owned Saudi television channel a week after another cleric, Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan called for the deaths of media executives who broadcast programs deemed immoral. CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said:

We fear for the safety of journalists and writers in the Middle East when senior religious figures issue calls for the imprisonment and flogging of their critics. The Saudi authorities must take a stand against such sinister edicts and ensure that journalists are protected.

The Middle East and North Africa have never been easy places for journalists to work. Press-rights monitors like the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders have even noticed an upsurge of cases in which journalists in relatively libertine Kuwait are hauled into court for articles they wrote or reports they broadcast.

Reporters continue to be targeted in Iraq, where earlier this month a four-person Al-Sharqiya television news team was abducted and murdered in Mosul.

The region’s political instability often translates into bad conditions for journalists. Press conditions in Mauritania, for example, which had been experimenting with democracy for a couple of years, have gone downhill since a coup d’etat against the government in August.

In a rare spot of positive news, an appeals court in Morocco threw out the conviction of blogger Mohamed Erraji, who was sentenced earlier this month to two years in prison and fined for "disrespecting” King Mohammed VI.

— Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Graphic credit: Wikimedia Commons

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