Freedom of the press around the world has declined to the lowest level in a decade, a survey warned ahead of Sunday's World Press Freedom Day.
93 percent of people in the Middle East live in countries that are designated “not free” in terms of press freedom, according to a report published days before World Press Freedom Day on Sunday.
The report, published by the US-based NGO Freedom House, rated Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria as the worst in the Arab world, giving them a ranking of 7 out of 7, with the highest number being the worst.
Globally, the authors of the report said that the situation had deteriorated for the press, but especially in the Middle East and North Africa region.
“Journalists faced intensified pressure from all sides in 2014,” said Jennifer Dunham, the project manager of the report.
Freedom House gave Libya the second biggest decline in its overall rating, pointing to the deterioration in the country's security situation and the restrictions imposed by militias across the country, as the North African state slips further into civil war.
The conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen were also highlighted, with 17 journalists killed in Syria in 2014, including foreign journalists murdered by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS). The Syrian regime has also targeted journalists, and the restrictions and danger facing local journalists in Syria and across the region are often lost with a large degree of the attention focusing on the difficulties facing international journalists.
This is highlighted in Egypt, where the imprisonment of three journalists working for al-Jazeera English received worldwide attention, while little attention was given to the at least nine other journalists working for local news outlets who remain imprisoned. Egypt was given its worst score in 11 years, harking back to the days of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Only Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania and Tunisia were rated as 'partly free' in the Arab world.
Tunisia was given its best score in over a decade and was rated as the most improved country, largely thanks to the ratification of its 2014 constitution, as well as “incremental decreases in editoral pressure and attacks on journalists”.
Autocratic states Most Gulf states were criticised for the press environment in their countries, with particularly sharp criticism being reserved for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“[The] UAE remains one of the most repressive media environments in the region, belying its image as a cosmopolitan oasis among conservative authoritarian regimes,”
Qatar was criticised for a new cybercrime law that criminalises the dissemination of “false news”, but there was also hope that a new Open Data Policy will improve transparency and allow access to government sources.
Non-Arab states in the region were given mixed ratings, with Turkey joining Iran in the 'not free' category. The country's government, which has been accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian, was criticised for new legislation that restricts the freedom of journalists to report on national security, as well as “amendments to the internet law” that “increased authorities' power to block online content” as witnessed in the blocking of sites such as YouTube and Twitter last year.
Israel was rated as 'free' in the report, but Israel's actions in the occupied Palestinian territories was not included when rating the country's media climate, and human rights groups such as the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and Amnesty International have documented cases of Palestinian journalists killed by Israeli forces over the past year.