Dangerous times for reporters covering Arab upheaval

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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Recent events in Egypt and Libya have painfully illustrated the risks facing reporters who continue to follow the Arab World’s tumultuous developments.

Events in Egypt during the last few days were a reminder of how dangerous the region’s incessant convulsions can be to journalists. Three reporters, including Gulf News reporter Habiba Abd al-Aziz, Egypt journalist Ahmed Abdel Gawad of al-Akhbar and Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, were killed on Wednesday. They were covering Cairo’s violent turn of events as security units forcefully cleared Islamist encampments.

But it was not just Egypt, concern was also mounting in Libya. Since last weekend, several reporters have been the target of unknown assailants. Azzidine Koussad, a young TV presenter working for the Libya Alhurra TV channel was killed in a drive-by shooting as he left a mosque in Benghazi.

During the same week, two other Libyan reporters were injured in shootings. Osama Audairi was shot in Ajdabiya and Khadija al-Amami, director of Benghazi office of Libya al-Ahrar TV, received a text message warning her that assailants will not miss her next time unless she stops working as a journalist.

Reporters have suffered a heavy toll during the 2010-2011 revolutionary turbulence. In its November 2011 report, Reporters Without Borders noted that “11 media workers have been killed during the performance of their duties, among them several internationally known photo-journalists. However most of the victims were local journalists.”

But today, especially in Libya, the premeditated targeting of reporters leaves little doubt; there is nothing accidental about the attacks. Reporters are unmistakably being targeted for their occupation. Their enemies are armed, intolerant and intent on settling scores, old and new. The murder of Koussad, said Reporters Without Borders, “marks a serious and regrettable turning point in Libya’s difficult transition to democracy.” He was the first reporter to be assassinated since the fall of Qaddafi, but not the first to be targeted.

The testimony of other Libyan journalists, who have had close encounters with armed groups, shows that perpetrators have a political agenda and have willfully selected their victims. Hassan al-Bacouche, a correspondent for Free Libya TV, was kidnapped in Benghazi last April. "They accused me and all journalists of destroying the country," he said after his release. Also kidnapped, Mahmoud al-Firgany, a correspondent for Al-Arabiya TV in Tripoli, said the armed men questioned him about “his loyalty to Qaddafi”. Youssef Qarqoum, a reporter for Libya First Channel, was kidnapped and tortured in Benghazi after discussing corruption on a radio talk-show. He later said his abductors accused him of being “a Qaddafi supporter”.

Increasingly, reporters are seen to be taking sides. In the Arab Spring’s mounting polarization, that can put them in danger.

“Journalists are neutral parties in conflicts and should not be the target of violence, regardless of who is perpetrating it,” International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, said this week. Unfortunately, her view is not always shared by feuding protagonists.

Whether shooting-targets of armed zealots today or innocent victims of “iron-fist policies,” pre-2010, journalists are the first casualties when the state, by omission or commission, fails to fulfill the first of its obligations: upholding the rule of law. But in most of the tumultuous countries of the Arab Spring, pinning the blame at the new rulers is much more problematic than in the days of hyper-centralized authoritarian regimes.

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “The cycle of violence continues because the authorities have failed to bring the attackers to justice, and we call on them to take immediate action.”

Several human rights and freedom of the press organizations are of the same view. All are pressing for the prosecution of culprits, especially because investigations into crimes against journalists do not yield a high success rate.

Radical formations cannot impose their vision of society by killing reporters or political activists.

Oussama Romdhani

In 2007, the International News Safety Institute counted one thousand journalists and support staff killed in one decade. “In two-thirds of cases, the killers were not even identified, and probably never will be,” it said.

However, the odds of failure are even higher for struggling authorities in many Arab countries. In places where insecurity has become the norm, the victims of violence are not only reporters. In Libya, since the fall of Qaddafi, the list of assassination targets has widened including between 50 and 60 former security and military officials, judges and a post-revolutionary activist.

Human Rights Watch noted that the July 26, 2013, killing of human rights advocate and anti-Qaddafi political activist Abdulasalam Elmessmary, “appeared to signal a new turn in the violence with potentially serious implications for Libya’s stability.”

Koussad was the first reporter to be killed in post-Qaddafi Libya; Elmessmary was the first activist to be assassinated.

In reality, it was only a matter of time before a “new turn” in the course of murderous practices. Once killing becomes the “new normal”, hit lists are extendible. A prevailing climate of insecurity renders life dangerous for everyone.

A senior Libyan official told Human Rights Watch last June: “In the absence of functioning state institutions, amid a proliferation of arms and of various active armed groups, we cannot work according to our usual procedures… All of these assassination cases remain unresolved. We do not know who our enemies are anymore – there are too many of them.”

According to the Libyan minister of the Interior Mohamed Sheikh, the “trigger-men” are likely to be convicts with “criminal records.” But in a country where more than 14,000 prisoners have escaped jail since 2011 this does not help to narrow down the list of suspects.

Moreover, even if Libyan authorities are expressing willingness to accept outside support in such areas as forensics and police training, the situation in the country is not yet ready for international collaboration of that kind. A few days ago, members of an Italian police training mission in Tripoli were attacked and robbed in their own Tripoli headquarters.

What to do about it

Practical steps should be taken. To start with, local reporters in areas of turbulence in the Arab world should get the same safety training as international journalists who cover conflicts. Arab Spring governments have serious security problems on their hands but they should spare no effort to protect the lives of reporters. When elites are in harm’s way, democratic transitions are also in jeopardy. Tunisian reporters who have received death threats are being protected around the clock by the police. After the assassination of two opposition leaders, the authorities were taking no risks.

Visiting reporters and local journalists are both at risk. Predators can prey on Western reporters for publicity dividends or heftier ransoms, but local reporters are easier targets. There are more of them, they do not take adequate precautions and they can easily be suspected of taking sides in domestic feuds. Even if their they are less likely to be household names than their foreign peers, local reporters and support staff are not any less deserving of international solidarity when tragedy strikes.

Sir Harold Evans, former Editor of London-based newspaper The Times wrote once: “We pay every week with the life of a reporter, a cameraman, a support worker. Unless the life is that of a well-known Western correspondent, the world barely notices.”

The International News Safety Institute’s recent warning to international media planning to work in Libya did not take into account the need for collaboration between local and foreign journalists.

“Threats and physical attacks against media staff during protests are common, particularly against local journalists. Be aware of this if you are working with local journalists,” it said.

There needs to be an emphasis upon working together as a unit.

At the end of the day reporters, regardless of their nationalities, run the risk of being the casualty of a bigger problem faced by Arab Spring countries: terrorism. Radical formations cannot impose their vision of society by killing reporters or political activists. It will only deepen the rejection of their brutish methods by the rest of the population.

However, it would be unwise to expect anything but this from modern-day extremists who are yet to learn what the medieval and bloodthirsty tyrants of the Middle Ages eventually understood: never shoot the messenger.


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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