Four journalists and rights activists from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia were prevented by their governments from traveling to Beirut to attend a regional forum on Arab press freedom on Friday.Four journalists and rights activists from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia were prevented by their governments from traveling to Beirut to attend a regional forum on Arab press freedom on Friday. Over 160 journalists, bloggers, publishers, editors and press freedom advocates came together for the first session of the two-day Third Annual Free Press Forum in Beirut.

This year’s gathering, which was organized by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) in partnership with local daily An-Nahar and held at the Monroe Hotel, coincided with the third anniversary of the assassination of MP and An-Nahar publisher Gebran Tueni. Tueni’s murder in a car bombing came just six months after leading An-Nahar columnist Samir Kassir was killed in a similar attack. The culprits of both assassinations have yet to be identified.

The four participants invited to speak at the forum had been prevented from attending by the authorities in their respective countries, WAN CEO Timothy Balding said.

They included Tunisian journalist Litfi Hidouri and human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou, who were to participate in a panel examining the increasing harassment cases of civil society activists in the North African state, and Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who was recently released from prison and has been forbidden to leave Saudi Arabia. For a second time, the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Mazen Darwish, was also prevented from attending the forum.

“WAN has vigorously protested these incidents,” Balding said in his opening speech.

Those in the Arab world “who dared to investigate government failures or wrongdoings, challenge untenable policies and call for reforms, or express dissenting opinions,” said Balding, “face charges of criminal defamation, blasphemy or endangering national security and are regularly sentenced to large fines and imprisonment.”

“In the meantime, we can at least thank the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression, as we open this forum,” the CEO added. “The hostility toward independent and opposition media and critical voices continues to rise and the repression against these voices can be ruthless.”

The forum, he continued, would provide an overview of and debate press developments in the Arab world, including the status of press freedom, business challenges, the rising political relevance of blogs, and journalist censorship and harassment.

“The Arab press, to our great regret, is virtually absent from the governing structures of WAN, which is the truly representative association of the leaders of the press throughout the democratic world,” the WAN official said. “This absence is a great regret to us and I would like to think that it is to you too. Let’s try together to change this situation.”

Balding also paid tribute to the late Tueni, who before his assassination had served as a WAN board member for over a decade and “had worked tirelessly to advance the interests of a free and independent Arab press, opposed with his pen, his voice and his will the tyrants of this region, and paid the greatest price,” he said.

The first panel, “Oblique Government Tactics that Impede a Free Arab Press,” examined the changing and increasing governmental attacks on the press. According to panel moderator Said Essoulami of the Center for Media Freedom MENA in Morocco, Arab regimes, finding themselves under “domestic and Western pressure to implement democratic reform,” were now employing underhand methods to silence their critics, such as accusations of belonging to terrorist groups or undermining state security.

Panel members Ibrahim Essa, editor in chief of the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Dustour, and Abdel Karim Al-Khaiwani, former editor in chief of Yemen’s Al-Shoura, had both been imprisoned for such charges.

Essa, who currently has 23 lawsuits filed against him in Egypt and is due to receive the Gebran Tueni Award in a ceremony on Saturday, gave a heated speech in which he labeled the idea of free press in the Arab world “science fiction.”

Arab governments wanted journalists “to have no position, no judgment, and to say ‘yes’ all the time, which goes against our profession as journalists,” Essa said. “The Arab world is like a gas chamber and journalists want to open a window,” he added.

Khaiwani, who was sentenced to six years in prison for alleged links to Yemeni separatists, likewise condemned “those authorities who think they can hide what is happening in their countries.”

“If there is any consolation to be gained from the rising tide of repression in this region,” said Balding, “I like to think it is evidence of a growing fear in the minds of the tyrants that your message of hope and freedom is gaining momentum and impact.”

A second panel was dedicated to “The Changing Face of Arab Blogging,” where Sudan’s Kizzie Shawkat, Syria’s Mohammad al-Abdallah and Tunisia’s Sami Ben Gharbia discussed their experiences and the growing relevance of blogging. Panel moderator Nora Younis, herself an Egyptian blogger, paid tribute to the “godfather” of Saudi blogs, Fouad al-Farhan, who had been forbidden from attending. “We are very angry and insist on conveying his voice, even if he cannot be with us,” she said.

Bloggers were viewed as a growing threat by authorities in the Arab world, Younis said, and many had faced harassment, torture or imprisonment.

Ben Gharbia, a political refugee in the Netherlands, said Tunisian bloggers were using the Internet for social activism and showed videos of police brutality posted on the internet by bloggers.

Abdullah had twice been arrested for writing about Syria’s poor human rights record and was forced to flee to Lebanon without a passport. Syrian visitors to Internet cafes were required “to register their address, time of arrival and departure and their parent’s names,” said Abdullah, whose brother and father are serving prison sentences for urging social reform.

A third panel, “Opportunities and Choices Facing Arab Newspaper Editors,” assessed Arab newsroom editorial policies, trends and innovations. Arab newspapers were currently facing a “big transition” that needed to be answered with “courage and intelligence,” panel moderator Xavier Vidal-Foch said.

Daily Star publisher Jamil Mroue said Arab newspaper editors were facing a number of challenges. “Politics in the old days was about the fight of Cain and Abel,” he said, referring to two brothers mentioned in the Bible. “Today, health, social problems, voting and politics have become everyone’s business. No one can be excluded.”

It has become difficult to “categorize” readers, Mroue said, which makes branding difficult. “We are in a situation where we are all insecure,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, “we have a massive opportunity to reinvent ourselves and serve many more people than we had every dreamed of.”

The executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, Rana Sabbagh, lamented the lack of investigative reporting in the Arab press, saying “we are working in countries where the environment” does not encourage it. “We need to acknowledge our lack of professionalism,” she said, urging publishers to train and prepare investigative journalists.

A final extraordinary panel was dedicated to the Tunisia Monitoring Group, which evaluated the growing tide of censorship and harassment of journalists and civil society activists in the country.

By Dalila Mahdawi – The Daily Star