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They once knew which lines not to cross. But Arab journalists say the lines are expanding

Jamal Khashoggi in 2011.
Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, shown in 2011, was killed two years ago by Saudi security agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
(Virginia Mayo / Associated Press)

One evening in late August, Emad Hajjaj, Jordan’s top editorial cartoonist, was driving back with his family from a day trip to the Dead Sea when police arrested him at a routine security checkpoint.

He assumed it was because of a previous traffic ticket. He was wrong.

More than 24 hours later, after being shuttled from one police station to the next, he appeared before a military tribunal. His charge? Disturbing peaceful relations with a friendly nation.

In his case, that meant the United Arab Emirates, an ally and sometime patron of Jordan. On the morning of his arrest, Hajjaj had tweeted his latest cartoon for the New Arab, a London-based newspaper funded by Qatar. The cartoon followed reports that Israel had asked the U.S. to refuse to sell F-35 warplanes to the Emirates, and showed a dove spitting in the face of a figure resembling the Abu Dhabi crown prince — and de facto Emirati leader — Mohammed bin Zayed; the spittle looks like the silhouette of an F-35. (Hajjaj insists he was not depicting Bin Zayed but an unnamed Emirati commentator.)

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In a region where press freedom is limited at best, Arab journalists, cartoonists and commentators have long been accustomed to holding their tongue when reporting on their own governments. But the charges against Hajjaj suggest that those constraints are expanding beyond their own countries’ borders to encompass their countries’ allies, in a further straitjacketing of local news media.

Most countries in the Arab world already are rated as “not free” by Freedom House, a U.S.-funded institute that releases a yearly index surveying freedoms, including press freedoms, in 192 countries. Its 2020 edition had four Arab countries — Syria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Libya — on its “worst of the worst” list. Only Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Morocco scored a “partly free” rating.

In the battle for regional influence, coronavirus worries make Middle East countries vulnerable to disinformation campaigns.

Journalists, commentators, bloggers and activists in the region routinely suffer threats, legal action, imprisonment and even torture for their coverage. Some are kidnapped or killed, such as Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered in 2018 by a Saudi Arabian hit team in Turkey, and reporter Ahmad Abdelsamad and cameraman Safaa Ghali, who were assassinated in their car after covering anti-government protests in the Iraqi city of Basra.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse, with all the countries in the region tightening restrictions on news media, Freedom House said in a report released earlier this month.

Hajjaj, who was released days after his arrest, allegedly violated a law that appears in the penal code of many Arab countries, said Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, a media-freedom watchdog based in Beirut.

“The problem is that there is no definition of what a friendly nation is and the figure involved. Are the king of Morocco, the president of Italy and the German chancellor all at the same level? Is the issue different, for example, for the prime minister of Iraq or its president?” he said in a phone interview.

Since journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s slaying in Turkey by Saudi Arabian agents, reports of violence against journalists have increased worldwide.

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The ambiguity is intentional because “it allows rulers or the judiciary in each country to change the legislation or level of scrutiny according to moving political interests,” Mhanna said. “The same article in a particular moment of time can be totally ignored, and when there are other conditions, like increasing economic interests, suddenly it’s remembered.”

For Jordan, which depends on international aid, those economic interests can be delicate. That’s especially true for the economic links it maintains with Arab Gulf neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which together play host to most of the estimated 800,000 Jordanians working abroad; in 2018, those migrant workers remitted about $3.7 billion to Jordan — or 10% of the country’s GDP, according to World Bank data.

That made Hajjaj an inevitable target. He faces three counts of the disturbance-of-relations charge: one for his cartoon on the warplane deal between the UAE and the U.S., and two for cartoons published earlier this year that pilloried Saudi Arabia’s leadership. If convicted of all three, he could face six to 10 years in jail. (This week, Hajjaj received word that his case was being transferred from the military tribunal to the civilian justice system; his court date is set for next week.)

Another factor journalists must contend with is that much of the Middle East’s media landscape is linked to political interests or governments. In Lebanon and Iraq, no outlet operates without a party affiliation. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, two of the largest news channels in the region, are owned by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, respectively.

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The same applies even to outlets affiliated with Western media organizations, such as Dubai-based Sky News Arabia, a joint venture of British-based Sky Group and Abu Dhabi’s Media Investment Corp., which unabashedly supports a regional axis led by Saudi Arabia against Turkey, Iran and Qatar.

The result is that journalists often run afoul of editorial constraints, or are associated to their detriment with the political views of their employer. The latter happened to Jad Ghosn, a Beirut-based journalist with Lebanon-based television network Al Jadeed.

The same day Hajjaj was arrested, Ghosn signed a contract with Dubai-based Asharq News. Ghosn was hired to be an assignment producer for Asharq, a Saudi-owned media company that had formed a partnership with Bloomberg to offer financial news and analysis.

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With Lebanon’s economy in tatters and prospects for a recovery dashed by the disastrous Aug. 4 blast in Beirut’s port, it seemed an opportunity for a fresh start.

“Leaving the country isn’t an easy thing for me,” he wrote on Twitter in late August. “But in Lebanon there are no easy decisions.”

He never left.

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A few hours after Ghosn’s Twitter post, a barrage of criticism erupted on social media over his hiring, stoked by an army of Saudi media figures and trolls, who released a handful of his tweets that they alleged showed an anti-Saudi slant. Al Jadeed, the network Ghosn worked for, is also perceived as anti-Saudi by supporters of the oil-rich kingdom.

The head of Asharq News denied that Ghosn had been hired in the first place, despite the signed contract. The final blow came in September, during the week Ghosn was supposed to report to his new office in Dubai: Asharq rescinded its offer, saying he would not be able to obtain the necessary approval to work in the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s top regional ally. Asharq never explained why, Ghosn said.

“I knew that Asharq was Saudi, but Bloomberg was my guarantee. I asked to work in the business department specifically so I could stay away from any political issues,” said Ghosn. “No matter how much you try to create a margin to work as a journalist, you just can’t.”

Repeated attempts to contact the head of Asharq, Nabil Khatib, were unsuccessful. Rose Youssef, a spokeswoman for Asharq, said in an email that she could not “comment on claims from individuals outside the organization.”

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A member of Bloomberg’s corporate communications team said on condition of anonymity that a Bloomberg representative was involved in interviewing Ghosn in an advisory capacity at one stage of the hiring process, but Asharq News was ultimately responsible for any hiring decisions and offers.

Lebanon has legalized marijuana farming — already a thriving illicit industry — in hopes of giving a boost to its foundering economy.

Ghosn said he was seeking compensation for having given up his job in Beirut, adding that Asharq had asked to him to shorten his notice period at Al Jadeed in order to join Asharq in September.

“I lost two jobs at the same time and now face an uncertain unemployment phase,” he said.

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For Hajjaj, the arrest and the case against him were a shock.

“I’ve been at this for 30 years, and I’m considered one of the pioneers. I thought I knew the system in Jordan and its limits. Yes, freedoms weren’t great, but there was an acceptable minimum,” he said.

“But I’m now reconsidering all this. ... I truly feel worry for my profession. How will I continue? I mean, for this cartoon I was threatened to spend almost a decade in prison?”

Hajjaj has since drawn and released more cartoons, addressing issues relating to President Trump’s coronavirus infection, the attempts to normalize ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, and other issues in the region.

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No Arab leader appears in any of them.


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