For decades, the profession of journalism has been one of the most dangerous in the Arab world.
The truth and facts are often sacrificed for the sake of “preserving the higher national interests of the people” and “to avoid playing into the hands of the enemies of the people.”
A journalist is taught that his main mission is to be loyal first and foremost to his president or monarch and then to his government and homeland.
In this world, Arab dictators are above any form of criticism.
When was the last time one read an article in a newspaper published in an Arab capital that criticized the leader of that country?
Not only are journalists and editors banned from criticizing their leaders, they are also prohibited from publishing any material that may, God forbid, be interpreted as “offensive” to His Excellency or His Majesty.
The official media in the Arab world is often under the control of the Ministry of Information, which appoints editors and journalists, and pays their salaries.
Under the Arab dictatorships, there has never been room for freedom of expression. These dictatorships have their own media, which actually serve as a mouthpiece for the ruler and his family and close friends.
In Morocco, for instance, five local journalists will go on trial later this month after they published articles about King Mohammed VI’s health.
The journalists work for Al-Jarida, Al-Ayam, Al-Oula and Al-Mishaal newspapers.
The case began last August, when the Royal Palace issued a statement revealing that the monarch had contracted a “viral, benign disease” and needed convalescing for five days.
The statement triggered a wave of rumors about the monarch’s health condition, with some journalists publishing news stories that questioned the credibility of the Royal Palace.
The Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ] said that some of the reporters had been interrogated for 40 hours over the sources of their information.
“This is over-the-top harassment-reporting on the health of the king is legitimate news and does not warrant such treatment," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "We call on the Rabat Prosecution Office to immediately end this investigation."
The Moroccan journalists are likely to be sentenced to prison and high fines. Their case brings to mind that of Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the Cairo-based Al-Dustour daily.
Last year, Eissa was sentenced to two months in prison for writing an article about the health of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The court found him guilty of “damaging national security by spreading rumors.”
Human rights activists say that Morocco, which is viewed by the West as one of the Arab world’s “moderate” and “liberal” countries, is notorious for its relentless crackdown on the media.
Also last year, Hassan Rachidi, bureau chief of Al-Jazeera in Morocco, was accused by authorities of “conspiring and spreading false information" about clashes between the police and unemployed demonstrators.
Tawfiq Boasharein, editor-in-chief of the Moroccan newspaper Al Massae, said Rachidi is not the only journalist dealing with the impact of a new wave of censorship laws sweeping the region.
Boasharein expressed fear that the case against Rachidi trial could set a precedent for Arab governments to crack down on freedom of speech and increase the intimidation of journalists working outside state-controlled media.
"In the past, the government used its executive power to repress journalists, but today, the government is using the judiciary system to suppress freedom. We are now dealing with a new set of oppressive laws. And my newspaper is suffering because of them,” he told Al-Jazeera.
Arab dictators often avoid unleashing a campaign of incitement against each other in their media outlets. They even appear to honor a “gentleman agreement” in this regard.
The Moroccan newspapers Al-Jarida, Al-Oula and two other dailies were recently ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 dirhams [about $13,000] and damages of 1 million dirhams [about $126,000] to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The newspapers were found guilty of publishing articles that had offended the Libyan dictator.
One article, headlined "We and the Arab Maghreb," criticized not only Qaddafi, but also his autocratic counterparts in Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Another article dealt with the arrest of Qaddafi’s youngest son and daughter-in-law in Geneva for allegedly assaulting a Moroccan servant and Tunisian maid.
This crackdown on the media has prompted many Arab journalists to seek employment in Western newspapers and TV stations.
Independent journalists who dare to criticize their leaders and governments often find themselves forced to move to North America, London or Paris, where they are able to continue their work without fear.
The crackdown on Arab journalists is likely to continue for as long as the international community continues to turn a blind eye to their plight.