Governments using virus as cover to restrict newspapers

Jordan, the UAE, Oman, Morocco, Yemen and Iran. It is the sort of list that Index might compile for any number of attacks on freedom of expression. In this instance they are all countries that have chosen to ban the printing of newspapers and other media during the current Covid-19 crisis, ostensibly to contain the spread of the virus.

This trend of governments using this pandemic to close down newsprint is one of a series of trends that we have identified in compiling Index’s mapping project . The map, created in conjunction with Justice for Journalists Foundation, tracks media violations during the coronavirus crisis.

On 17 March, the Jordanian Council of Ministers ordered newspapers to stop producing print editions for two weeks in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Minister of state for media affairs Amjad Adaileh said at a press conference that the decision was “because they help the transmission of the pandemic”. On 21 March, the UAE’s National Media Council announced a temporary ban on printing all newspapers and magazines except for regular subscribers of the publications and large outlets in shopping centres.

The council said the decision was “in line with the precautionary measures taken to contain the spread of the virus. Several people touching the same printed material has the potential to disseminate the virus.”

Over the next week, Morocco, the Sultanate of Oman, Yemen and Iran all followed suit, forcing publishers to produce copies online. In April, the Indian state of Maharashtra did things differently; it didn’t ban print publications but banned their delivery to people’s doors.

In early April, a number of Tunisian publishers suspended printing a number of daily and weekly publications.

Yet there is mounting evidence that there is little or no risk of catching the virus from newspapers, which has led Index to suspect that Covid-19 is being used as an excuse.

The World Health Organisation is reported to have said that the risk of contracting the virus from newsprint is “infinitely small”.

Professor George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre said in a TV interview: “Newspapers are pretty sterile because of the way they are printed and the process they’ve been through. Traditionally, people have eaten fish and chips out of them for that very reason. So all of the ink and the print makes them actually quite sterile. The chances of that are infinitesimal.”

Former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research N K Ganguly told the Deccan Herald: “It is more of a perception than reality that COVID-19 virus spreads through newspapers.

The risk of catching the virus from newsprint seems remote but some say the fear of it spreading that way is causing people not to buy print newspapers.

Vincent Peyrègne, CEO of the World Association of News Publishers, (WAN-IFRA) said:

“Today, modern newspaper production is fully automated from end to end. There is hardly human intervention until the last mile distribution point. The ink and solvent used in newspaper printing act as a disinfectant to a large extent and there is no evidence to show that newspapers are carriers of the virus. The rumours that the virus can spread through newspapers is also having a disastrous effect, and newspaper as a source of transmission of the virus is very remote.”

It is perhaps telling that the countries which appear high on various rankings of press freedom have not joined in with banning newsprint.

Peyrègne said these countries “banned print newspapers with the fallacious, or misleading argument that they needed to protect the health of citizens”.

“Any banning of media or placing of restrictions on journalists or media organisations is not only an attack on the freedom to inform and to be informed, but it also carries serious consequences in terms of responsibility for contributing to one of the most serious humanitarian and economic crises we have experienced in the last one hundred years. Nevertheless, many authoritarian countries feel that the crisis is the perfect excuse to crack down on free speech, silence their critics and accelerate repressive measures,” said Peyrègne.

The ban on print editions of newspapers and magazines has contributed to a devastating effect on circulations.

Peyrègne said: “The month of April hit the circulation of the daily press hard, due to confinement, the closure of sales outlets and the shutdown of transport. Generally speaking, readership and subscription surged dramatically during the lockdown. Some segments were obviously more affected than others.”

In the UK, the auditing body ABC has told publishers they no longer have to reveal their print circulations, a move which media trade journal Press Gazette says may mean we “never get the full picture of the impact of coronavirus on newspaper sales”. It says that News UK is the only major publisher to say it will not provide the figures so far.

The crisis has also seen a dramatic acceleration in the move of local newspapers away from print. Many local newspapers rely on advertising from their communities and most of these businesses have been forced to close during the crisis, sucking revenues from the publishers.

News Corp Australia announced at the end of May that 76 of its local and regional newspapers would become digital only while 36 others would cease publication permanently.

In the UK, JPIMedia said it was temporarily stopping the print publication of a dozen of its titles, including the MK Citizen in Milton Keynes and the News Guardian in North Tyneside.

In Egypt, Sawt Al-Azhar, Veto, Al-Youm Al-Gadid and Iskan Misr have all temporarily stopped producing print editions.

It is good to see that some countries, including Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan have reversed their bans but such incidents represent just a small part of wider crackdowns on media freedom that we are witnessing at this time of crisis and which we are reporting on our interactive map.

Newspapers play a vital role in informing communities, particularly at times of crisis, and the combination of misguided bans and the poor financial viability of some titles will be a loss that will be keenly felt.

Read more about Index’s mapping media freedom during Covid-19 project.

Project Exile: Moroccan journalist Hicham Mansouri flees after being stripped and jailed

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This article is part of Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist’s Project Exile series, which has published interviews with exiled journalists from around the world.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”107703″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]When the security software on Moroccan journalist Hicham Mansouri’s computer alerted him that there had been a number of attempts to hack his email, he did what came naturally: he began investigating. 

Little did he know that the 2015 incident would be followed by a bizarre effort by Moroccan police to sexually humiliate him and a female friend and ten torturous months in jail after being arrested on trumped-up charges of operating a brothel and adultery, which is illegal in the North African nation. 

Efforts to prosecute or intimidate journalists are not unusual in Morocco, and as Mansouri’s story demonstrates, the government of King Mohammed VI can be both cruel and creative in its efforts to silence dissenting voices. The kingdom ranks 135th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, below nations like Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and the Philippines. Morocco was also named in a 2018 report from the Canadian Citizen Lab as a country where Pegasus spyware is used to track mobile phones of civil society activists. 

Mansouri himself, a co-founder of the Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalists, had already been beaten up by strangers in September 2014 after leaving a meeting at a hotel with the Moroccan historian and prominent dissident Maâti Monjib. Even today, after 10 months in jail on adultery charges, two hunger strikes and three years in exile in France, Mansouri faces pending charges of threatening state security in Morocco. These stem from his involvement with StoryMaker, an app that helps citizen journalists create video reports based on events they witness. 

Yet Mansouri remains undaunted. Now living in France, he blogs for the French online investigative and opinion site Mediapart and contributes to the Italian newspaper Caffe Dei Giornalisti as well as the online site of Maison des journalistes, a group that provides housing to journalists in exile. Mansouri spoke with Global Journalist’s Gaëlle Fournier about his imprisonment, his continuing legal troubles and life in exile. Below, an edited and translated version of their conversation:[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Hicham Mansouri was beaten up on September 24, 2014. (Photo: Ahmed Bensedik)

Hicham Mansouri was beaten up on September 24, 2014. (Photo: Ahmed Bensedik)

Global Journalist: Tell us about your journalism career.

Hicham Mansouri: I worked for a regional newspaper called Machahid in [the southern coastal city of] Agadir and then for the non-governmental organisations Free Press Unlimited and International Media Support in Rabat. 

In 2009, I participated in an investigative journalism programme. With some colleagues, we decided to create a network of Moroccan investigative journalists. The association was recognised in 2011, two days after the Arab Spring began in Morocco. I was then programme director of the association, but now the association has ceased its activities. The website of the AMJI [Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism] was hacked and replaced by pornographic content. We were censored and received threats.

GJ: How would you describe the environment for the press in Morocco?

Mansouri: Freedom of the press is differentiated geographically. If you’re living around Casablanca or [the capital] Rabat, more things are tolerated than they are in the countryside.

There are what is commonly called the three “red lines” in Morocco. These topics are likely to be censored: Islam, the monarchy and the issue of Western Sahara [a territory claimed by Morocco]. 

All independent newspapers that have addressed these issues have been punished by the authorities. Editors have been put in jail, so they cease their activities. There is a lot of self-censorship

Some journalists are even in trouble for translating foreign articles into Arabic. Not many people read newspapers in Morocco as there is a high illiteracy rate. The journalists who get in trouble are [often] the broadcasters. 

GJ: You spent 10 months in jail after being arrested for adultery and operating a brothel. This came right after you began investigating the electronic surveillance of journalists and activists, including yourself.

Mansouri: I was working on an investigative piece about electronic surveillance when I got arrested by the police in 2015. I’m not a cybersecurity specialist, but thanks to software, I found the IP addresses [of the cyber attacker]. They were protected by malware and I decided to investigate. I tried to delete the two addresses but found that they could not be deleted.

I found this strange, so I contacted the creator of the [security] software who indeed told me that there was something wrong. 

Three days later, I was arrested. It was around 10am on a morning back in 2015. I was seeing a female friend and five minutes after she arrived, the police broke down the door of my apartment and forced me to undress.

They also tried to undress the woman in order to stage a scene showing us engaged in adultery. The police filmed the entire thing from the beginning. 

At trial, we asked the police video be shown as proof of what happened, but they refused. They only showed pictures they took of me, almost naked, on my bed. They also said they found a used condom on the bed. 

I had been assaulted a few months prior to this, so I was really paranoid. I found out later that I had been watched by the police for a few months prior to my arrest. 

GJ: You were later jailed on the adultery charge. Tell us about your time behind bars.

Mansouri: It was very hard. I felt the invisible hand of repression and it followed me everywhere. 

The first day in jail, I was thrown in a cell with [serious] criminals, while I should have been assigned to the what’s called Block A, which is reserved for first-time offenders like me. I was sent to Block D, which the inmates call “the trash,” the worst of all. The cell was overcrowded. I had to sleep on the floor in unsanitary conditions. Within a week I was infested with lice. 

The worst was the violence I witnessed, including fights between inmates and self-harm. I even thought some of the fights were orchestrated to kill me. 

I went on two hunger strikes, which eventually led the authorities to provide me with some books and newspapers and assign me to a block with inmates suspected of terrorism, who were watched by policemen. 

I tried to survive and write about my memories in jail. This diary project is not so much about sharing my experience, it’s about telling the stories of the inmates I met, who came back from Syria, were tortured, used drugs. However, my experience in jail is not unique. It is one all activists and journalists [jailed in Morocco] have to go through.

Hicham Mansouri being welcomed out of the prison by his friend and colleague Maâti Monjib, who was nominated for an Index on Censorship Award for Campaigning in 2017. Monjib, a historian and writer, along Hicham Mansouri and five other journalists, is accused of endangering Moroccan state security. Their trial has been postponed 14 times since its start in 2015.

Hicham Mansouri being welcomed out of the prison by his friend and colleague Maâti Monjib, who was nominated for an Index on Censorship Award for Campaigning in 2017. Monjib, a historian and writer, along Hicham Mansouri and five other journalists, is accused of endangering Moroccan state security. Their trial has been postponed 14 times since its start in 2015.

GJ: Even though you’re in France, you still face trial in Morocco on “suspicion of endangering state security” along with six co-defendants. This charge was also brought against you in 2015 and the trial has been postponed 14 times.

Mansouri: It began with a citizen journalism project called StoryMaker, created in partnership with Free Press Unlimited and The Guardian. We are officially accused of falsifying videos and photos with this app, which we created to be a reporting tool for citizens. 

The authorities told me that “investigation” is the work of the police, not the media. We are even accused of spying and diverting funds from state-owned media. There is no evidence for any of this.

Every time there is a hearing [in Rabat], the file is not even open and the trial is postponed to another date. It’s like the sword of Damocles. Before, we used to defend our innocence. But now we just want the matter brought before a judge for a decision, whether it’s for or against us. 

GJ: Even after you were jailed, you did a major environmental investigation. What did you find?

Mansouri: In 2016, I did an investigation about Morocco importing 2,500 tons of toxic industrial waste from Italy. The toxic industrial waste was burnt to make cement in Morocco, something that is strictly forbidden in Europe.

Based on documents, it revealed the existence of indirect links between cement works owned by the king’s holding company and an international environmental business tied to the Italian mafia. It was published by the news site Lakome2, whose founder is actually being prosecuted for “sympathising with terrorism”.

GJ: How did you decide when was the right time to leave Morocco?

Mansouri: I made the decision to leave my country when I was in jail. I did not tell anyone. The physical and psychological torture I experienced led to my exile. My first day in prison, I had tachycardia [abnormally fast heartbeat], and I was beaten by a prison guard. I really felt suicidal. I felt like I was suffocating, not able to speak, to cry, to scream. I was ready to do anything to leave this hell. 

I decided to leave Morocco when I learned that the judge who sent me to jail [for adultery] was also the one who was going to work on the state security case. I know how he proceeds and it did not portend anything good.

When I learned this, I had been in jail for six months. It was a nightmare. It was as if I was in a bottomless pit. Everything was dark. I could not bear staying five more years in jail when I could have spent those years studying for a PhD. 

GJ: What are your plans for the future?

Mansouri:  Living in exile is far from being easy. You have to start for scratch.

I was mostly busy over the past two years with my asylum application, which was a real obstacle course.

I’m now working on an observation project on hate speech in several countries of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region like Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt for the NGO MENA Media Monitoring. We have published two reports so far. I continue to fight for what is happening in Morocco, I keep on testifying to show the truth. I’m publishing from time to time articles on my Mediapart blog. I’m also finishing my master’s in political science[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_video link=”″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook). We’ll send you our weekly newsletter, our monthly events update and periodic updates about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share, sell or transfer your personal information to anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content”][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Global Journalist / Project Exile” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”22142″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

David Kaye: The other travel ban

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”96621″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Governments have arsenals of weapons to censor information. The worst are well-known: detention, torture, extra-judicial (and sometimes court-sanctioned) killing, surveillance. Though governments also have access to less forceful but still insidious tools, such as website blocking and internet filtering, these aim to cut off the flow of information and advocacy at the source.

Another form of censorship gets limited attention, a kind of quiet repression: the travel ban. It’s the Trump travel ban in reverse, where governments exit rather than entry. They do so not merely to punish the banned but to deny the spread of information about the state of repression and corruption in their home countries.

In recent days I have heard from people around the world subject to such bans. Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist in Azerbaijan who has exposed high-level corruption, has suffered for years under fraudulent legal cases brought against her, including time in prison. The government now forbids her to travel. As she put it last year: “Corrupt officials of Azerbaijan, predators of the press and human rights are still allowed in high-level forums in democracies and able to speak about values, which they destroy in their own – our own country.”

Zunar, a well-known cartoonist who has long pilloried the leaders of Malaysia, has been subject to a travel ban since mid-2016, while also facing sedition charges for the content of his sharply dissenting art. While awaiting his preposterous trial, which could leave him with years in prison, he has missed exhibitions, public forums, high-profile talks. As he told me, the ban directly undermines his ability to network, share ideas, and build financial support.

Ismayilova and Zunar are not alone. India has imposed a travel ban against the coordinator of a civil society coalition in Kashmir because of “anti-India activities” which, the government alleges, are meant to cause youth to resort to violent protest. Turkey has aggressively confiscated passports to target journalists, academics, civil servants, and school teachers. China has barred a women’s human rights defender from travelling outside even her town in Tibet.

Bahrain confiscated the passport of one activist who, upon her return from a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, was accused by officials of “false statements” about Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates has held Ahmed Mansoor, a leading human rights defender and blogger and familiar to those in the UN human rights system, incommunicado for nearly this entire year. The government banned him from travelling for years based on his advocacy for democratic reform.

Few governments, apart from Turkey perhaps, can compete with Egypt on this front. I asked Gamal Eid, subject to a travel ban by Egyptian authorities since February of 2016, how it affects his life and work? Eid, one of the leading human rights defenders in the Middle East and the founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), has seen his organisation’s website shut down, public libraries he founded (with human rights award money!) forcibly closed, and his bank accounts frozen.

While Eid is recognised internationally for his commitment to human rights, the government accuses him of raising philanthropic funds for ANHRI “to implement a foreign agenda aimed at inciting public opinion against State institutions and promoting allegations in international forums that freedoms are restricted by the country’s legislative system.” He has been separated from his wife and daughter, who fled Egypt in the face of government threats. The ban forced him to close legal offices in Morocco and Tunisia, where he provided defence to journalists, and he lost his green card to work in the United States. He recognises that his situation does not involve the kind of torture or detention that characterises Egypt’s approach to opposition, but the ban has ruined his ability to make a living and to support human rights not just in Egypt but across the Arab world.

Eid is not alone in his country. He estimates that Egypt has placed approximately 500 of its nationals under a travel ban, about sixteen of whom are human rights activists. One of them is the prominent researcher and activist, Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who faces accusations similar to Eid’s.

Travel bans signal weakness, limited confidence in the power of a government’s arguments, perhaps even a public but quiet concession that, “yes indeed, we repress truth in our country”. While not nearly as painful as the physical weapons of censorship, they undermine global knowledge and debate. They exclude activists and journalists from the kind of training that makes their work more rigorous, accurate, and effective. They also interfere in a direct way with every person’s human right to “leave any country, including one’s own,” unless necessary for reasons such as national security or public order.

All governments that care about human rights should not allow the travel ban to continue to be the silent weapon of censorship – and not just for the sake of Khadija, Zunar, and Gamal, but for those who benefit from their critical voices and work. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Index on Censorship monitors press freedom in 42 European countries.

Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified 3,597 violations against journalists and media outlets.

Index campaigns to protect journalists and media freedom. You can help us by submitting reports to Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook) and we’ll send you our weekly newsletter about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share your personal information with anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#IndexAwards2017: Maati Monjib and the cost of free speech in Morocco


2017 Freedom of Expression Awards linkA well-known academic who teaches African studies and political history at the University of Rabat since returning from exile, Maati Monjib co-founded Freedom Now, a coalition of Moroccan human rights defenders who seek to promote the rights of Moroccan activists and journalists in a country ranked 131 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. His work campaigning for press freedom – including teaching investigative journalism workshops and using of a smartphone app called Story Maker designed to support citizen journalism – has made him a target for the authorities who insist that this work is the exclusive domain of state police. For his persistent efforts, Monjib is currently on trial for “undermining state security” and “receiving foreign funds.” He faces much persecution by police and isn’t allowed to travel.

“We lead an everyday struggle to defend citizens, journalists and artists who are persecuted and slandered,” Monjib told Index on Censorship.

Monjib has twice been on hunger strike, in September and October 2015, resulting in the lifting of his ban on leaving the country. A ban was also lifted on three of his co-accused, two leaving for France and one for Holland, who now continue their struggle for freedom of expression and freedom of the press in their host countries.

In November 2016, the Administrative Court decided that Freedom Now is completely legal. On the same day, a dozen policemen, two in uniform, broke into Monjib’s home and harassed family members and neighbours.

See the full shortlist for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2017 here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content” equal_height=”yes” el_class=”text_white” css=”.vc_custom_1490258749071{background-color: #cb3000 !important;}”][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_custom_heading text=”Support the Index Fellowship.” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:center” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]

By donating to the Freedom of Expression Awards you help us support

individuals and groups at the forefront of tackling censorship.

Find out more

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