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.”
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.
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.
Made in Britain? Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) called for the immediate suspension of the use of excessive, indiscriminate and systematic use of tear gas against civilian protesters and densely populated Shia neighbourhoods in Bahrain (Image: Iman Redha/Demotix)
The Arab Spring has not stopped Britain from helping crush free expression and freedom of assembly by selling crowd control gear to authoritarian states including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Analysis of newly-published data on export licences approved by the UK government have revealed ministers backed over £4 million of tear gas, crowd control ammunition and CS hand grenade sales over the last two years to Saudi Arabia – one of the most repressive states in the world.
The British government also allowed crowd control ammunition to be sold to Malaysia and Oman, as well as tear gas to Hong Kong and Thailand.
It gave the green light to anti-riot and ballistic shields to four authoritarian regimes listed by the Economist Democratic Index: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, as well as Saudi Arabia.
Its only refusal for an export licence in 2013 for equipment which could be used to suppress internal dissent was for an order of CS hand grenades and ‘tear gas/irritant ammunition’ to Turkey.
A lack of transparency across the secretive arms sector makes it difficult to establish which companies are providing the arms – or how the country in question intends to use them.
But the Geneva Convention forbids the military use of all gas weapons, meaning the UK government would have assumed the tear gas was for use against civilian protesters.
Brief explanatory notes included in the export licences data suggest all those mentioned above are primarily for use against domestic populations.
The notes typically state the licence is granted “for armed forces end use” or “for testing and evaluation by a government / military end user”.
The only exception is the note for a sizeable order of anti-protest equipment for Brazil, which makes clear the export licence is granted for “armed forces end users not involved in crowd control / public security”.
Further evidence has emerged that Britain’s leading arms firm, BAE, has signed a £360 million contract with an unnamed Middle Eastern country for the upgrade of armoured personnel carriers whose primary use is against protesters.
Industry insiders believe the improvements are being made in Saudi Arabia to a stockpile of the vehicles left in the country by the United States military.
BAE’s chairman Sir Roger Carr said contractual commitments prevented him from commenting at the defence giant’s annual general meeting in Farnborough yesterday.
He faced heckling and hissing from vocal critics in the audience who had infiltrated the two-hour question-and-answer session, but insisted BAE was “helping to preserve world peace” and that the company “are not undermining the broader international rules” of the arms trade.
Speaking afterwards, however, a member of BAE’s board suggested the “natural place for these decisions is with government” rather than the company.
“I’m not abrogating our moral responsibility,” he said, “but it’s right that the burden of these difficult decisions is on the government because, in the UK at least, this is an elected democracy.”
Britain’s parliament, at least, has proved reluctant to provide a critical voice on the UK’s arms trade.
Opponents had alleged Saudi Arabian troops which intervened to crush the Arab Spring in Bahrain had received British military training. A recent report from MPs accepted the Foreign Office’s rejection of British complicity, with ministers arguing none of the training had taken place “in a repressive way”.
The Commons’ foreign affairs committee did, however, call on the government to “adhere strictly to its existing policy to ensure that defence equipment sold by UK firms are not used for human rights abuses or internal repression”.
Its request for the government to provide further evidence that it is doing so in practice did not meet with a positive response.
Officials said the risk that export licence criteria might be broken is “factored into” the original decision to grant the licence.
The Foreign Office stated: “There are rigorous pre-licence checks and, for open licences, compliance audits at the exporters’ premises in the UK. We will continue to scrutinise carefully all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
Many believe the current export licence regime is not fit for purpose, however. In 2013 the UK approved military licences to a total of 31 authoritarian regimes including Russia, China, Qatar and Kuwait.
“BAE couldn’t sell the weapons they do to these countries without the support of the UK government,” Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against The Arms Trade said.
“The UK government can stop any of these exports at any time but is choosing not to because it’s putting arms company profits ahead of human rights.”
He suggested the government’s decision to exclude Bahrain from its list of ‘countries of concern’ on human rights was “politically motivated”.
And he warned arms sales went beyond small-scale arms and ammunition to include much bigger purchases like fighter jets.
“The reason the Saudis buy from Britain is not just because Britain is willing to sell arms,” Smith added, “but also because it comes with political support and the endorsement and silence of the British government.”
The Gulf monarchies have, in recent years, invested considerable resources and efforts in finding ways to censor interactions between their citizens, and between their citizens and other parties. As such, each new communications technology that has become available in the region has either been sponsored by the state, for example, the state-backed newspapers, radio stations, and television stations; or it has been blocked, such as unpalatable foreign newspapers, unwanted foreign radio and television signals, satellite broadcasts and foreign books.
A case can even be made that the internet itself — predicted by many to lead to sweeping changes in such tightly controlled societies — was also successfully co-opted by the Gulf monarchies, at least in the early days. The blocking of offensive websites, including blogs critical of the regimes, has occurred, while many other basic internet communications methods such as email or messenger software can either be blocked or — more usefully — monitored by the state so as to provide information and details on opponents and opposition movements.
Moreover, some Gulf monarchies have actively exploited internet communications, arguably having done so much better than most governments in developed states, with an array of e-government web services having been launched, most of which allow citizens to feel more closely connected to government departments and helping to echo the earlier era of direct, personal relations between the rulers and ruled.
Meanwhile, the rulers themselves have often established presences online, and their self-glorifying websites usually also feature discussion forums to facilitate interaction between themselves (or rather their employees) and the general public. Many other lesser ruling family members, ministers, police chiefs, and other establishment figures in the region have also set up interactive Twitter feeds and Facebook fan sites for the same purposes, and some of these are now ‘followed’ by thousands of citizens and other well-wishers.
Unsurprisingly, all six Gulf states have slipped further down Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index. In 2012, the highest ranked Gulf monarchy was Kuwait — in 78th position — with the UAE, Qatar, and Oman ranked firmly below dozens of African dictatorships, and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain ranking among the very worst countries in the world. Although superficially successful in the short term in limiting opposition voices, the various censorship strategies employed have been leading to heightened fears and widespread criticism and condemnation of the regimes responsible, not only from the international community, but also from resident national and expatriate populations, and most especially in the wake of the region’s “Arab Spring” revolutions.
Nevertheless, the seemingly unstoppable wave of new, participatory and user-centred Web 2.0 internet technologies — from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to video-sharing site YouTube — seem to be finally having the expected impact on the region’s population and its political consciousness.While these and other Web 2.0 applications can still be blocked in their entirety by cautious regimes, this is now unlikely to happen in the Gulf monarchies, as the inevitable outcry from the large numbers of users would be difficult or perhaps impossible to appease.
Inevitably these applications are being increasingly used to host discussions, videos, pictures, cartoons, and newsfeeds that criticise ruling families, highlight corruption in governments, and emphasise the need for significant political reform and increasingly even revolution in the Gulf.Leading opposition figures are now attracting as many followers on these applications as members of ruling families. While there have been some attempts by regimes to counter-attack against this cyber opposition, often by deploying fake social media profiles so as to threaten genuine users, or by establishing so-called “honey pot” websites to lure in activists and help reveal their identity, for the most part the applications are effectively bypassing censorship controls and the mechanisms used to control earlier modernising forces.
As such they are facilitating an unprecedented set of horizontal connections forming between Gulf nationals and between Gulf nationals and outside parties — connections which are crucially now beyond the jurisdiction or interference of the ruling families and their security services.
Omani officials are threatening to shut down Al-Zaman, an independent newspaper, after it published allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Justice. Youssef al-Haj was interrogated for writing the articles questioning the Ministry’s decision to prevent Haroun al-Mukbeeli, a long-time civil servant, from appealing a refusal to provide him with an increase in salary and grade. He was eventually ordered to stop any protest of the decision. Following the release of the article, officials banned Al-Haj from writing, and he could potentially serve time in prison. The editor-in-chief of the paper, Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, was also interrogated by officials.