General: On World Press Freedom Day, GCHR called for better protection for journalists and freedom of expression in the MENA region


On World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every year on 03 May, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) called on the authorities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to protect the right to freedom of expression, and end attacks on journalists.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The theme is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”.

GCHR’s Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim said, “On this important day, we join UNESCO to highlight the importance of supporting independent journalists and online activists who try to break through the barriers imposed on freedom of expression in the MENA region. Too many of them are in prison for defending this essential right. In our efforts to protect them, GCHR publishes information on cases of violations but we also carry out capacity building and safety workshops for journalists and human rights defenders.”

GCHR marked World Press Freedom Day at an event in Beirut on 03 and 04 May in partnership with UNESCO which included a series of panel discussions on the challenges facing journalists in the Arab Region. The event spotlighted the link between freedom of expression and other human rights and discussed tools and best practices to advance the right to freedom of expression. It was followed by a training workshop for MENA journalists.

Ibrahim took part in a panel on “The role of press freedom in ensuring access to reliable information on the internet” which addressed the important role of press freedom to ensure access to information for all on the internet as a human right, but taking into consideration data protection and privacy. At the panel, and during his interventions in other sessions, he spoke about the need to create a new generation of young and independent journalists, as the previous generation has been subject to many attacks and assassinations, as well as the need to support women journalists.  

On 04 May 2023, in cooperation with UNESCO, GCHR organised an initial training workshop for young journalists from the MENA region on how to implement a successful human rights campaign to release human rights defenders or combat repressive legislation, digital security, and various UNESCO programmes, including the safety of journalists.

Iranian women human rights defenders and journalists Niloofar Hamedi, Elaheh Mohammadi and Narges Mohammadi are the laureates of the 2023 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. GCHR tweeted congratulations and called for their freedom. Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi were arrested in September 2022 for reporting on Mahsa Amini’s death, and Narges Mohammadi is serving a 16-year prison sentence for her human rights work.

As part of GCHR’s project with the UNESCO’s Global Media Defense Fund on “Investigating impunity for crimes against journalists in the Arab States, while providing protection”, GCHR is supporting investigations of attacks on journalists across the region.

Through the GMDF project, GCHR hired journalists to investigate different types of violations that impact a journalist’s ability to work, including a case of a disappeared Syrian journalist who may have been murdered, and a Palestinian journalist shot in the eye, who nearly lost his life. In addition, we have cases of women journalists who are attacked and harassed in Iraq and Palestine, including with online photos, making them want to leave their work. We also have investigations in Morocco about the imprisonment of journalists through false accusations, and an investigation in Lebanon.

GCHR’s Journalists Protection Coordinator Zaynab Al-Khawaja says, “Journalists in our region face a myriad of high risks, and usually from more than one perpetrator, using many different methods to intimidate and target them. Working on projects such as this one we hope to shed light on those crimes, reveal those responsible for them and to support journalists to fight back by exposing those who attack them. Of course investigating such crimes intensifies the risks on the journalists and I will always be in awe of the bravery of the people we work with.”

Here is a summary of the cases covered under GCHR’s project funded by UNESCO’s Global Media Defense Fund.

Morocco: In February 2023, an investigation into the unjust imprisonment of journalists in Morocco was published in Hawamich (in Arabic), an online journal. It covers the use of false allegations of sexual harassment against male journalists, which are used to imprison them and silence them. The investigation, which took several months to complete, comes with 3 videos. It has been published in Spanish in El Público and will be published in English.

On 23 February 2023, GCHR worked with a Tunisian NGO, Vigilance, to gather support from 40 other partners on a joint appeal calling on Moroccan authorities to immediately end the persecution and detention of prominent independent newspaper editor Taoufik Bouachrine, and scores of Moroccan journalists and human rights defenders imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. The date marks the anniversary of the date that Bouachrine, founder and editor-in-chief of the independent daily Akhbar Al-Youm, was arrested on 23 February 2018, after writing editorials critical of high-ranking Moroccan officials and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. He is serving a 15-year sentence on false charges of sexual assault. One of the alleged accusers, journalist Afaf Bernani, was sentenced to six months in jail for publicly accusing a police officer of falsifying her testimony. Like other persecuted critical journalists, Bernani went into exile immediately after her release from prison. The joint appeal was covered in a Moroccan independent online newspaper, Lakome2.

Iraq: An Iraqi woman journalist has written an investigative report about sexual harassment and sexual assault of women journalists at work, largely by their senior colleagues, which is making women leave their jobs. The investigation features the story of an anonymous woman journalist who had to leave her job - and even her city - after being sexually harassed, to focus on the issue of why so many women in Iraq cannot continue in the profession. She writes, “A large proportion of society is aware of widespread harassment in the streets, resulting from an exacerbated hypermasculinity. However, statements by several Iraqi women journalists confirm that this phenomenon did not spare women in press and media outlets, forcing a considerable number of them to quit journalism for good.”

The article notes that, “According to a survey conducted by a research team commissioned by the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq, 41% of working women journalists have been subjected to different kinds of harassment, and 15% of them were forced to leave their jobs and move to other organizations, whereas 5% quit their profession for good.”