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Beyond Charlie Hebdo: 'Blasphemy' penalized by Arab governments

Laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, with penalties ranging from fines to death.

By
Andrew V. Pestano
Graphic courtesy Reporters Without Borders
Graphic courtesy Reporters Without Borders

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- As a terrorist attack on a satirical magazine in Paris illuminates the issue of press freedom, media in most of the Arab world are still shackled and can be brutally punished for "blasphemy" by their governments.

Even after the promise of new freedoms during the Arab Spring movement, all countries in the region are regarded as having press freedom situations that are "difficult" or "very serious," according to Reporters Without Borders.

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Research released last spring from the Pew Research Center found that laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 14 of the 20 countries criminalize blasphemy, and in 12 apostasy is a crime. Penalties range from fines to death. Saudi Arabia strictly censors the media and the Internet with dire consequences.

On Thursday in Jeddah, blogger Raif Badawi was flogged 50 times as part of a 1,000-lash sentence after his conviction of cybercrime and insulting Islam. His website, The Liberal Saudi Network, was banned and Badawi was arrested in 2012. He was also sentenced to 10 years in jail and ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals ($266,000).

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Columnist Tariq al-Mubarak was arrested after criticizing the country's ban on female drivers and the fear Arab societies are subjected to by their governments that prevent them from having fundamental freedoms.

The lack of press freedom may be the worst in Syria, which Reporters Without Borders calls the world's most dangerous country for journalists.

Journalists continually flee the country after almost 130 news and information providers have been killed since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. Both the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and armed Islamist groups, which include the Islamic State, are culpable.

Recently, the Islamic State released a video of captured British reporter John Cantlie giving a tour of Mosul, Iraq.

Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution sparked the Arab Spring that fundamentally changed the region -- Egypt, Libya and Yemen's authoritarian leaders were removed from power as a result of the movement.

In December, Tunisia inaugurated its first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, a leader of the Nidaa Tournes party, which has called for a progressive and secular society.

But the government still controls the media. Tunisia ranks 133rd in the list of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

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Amnesty International is working to free film director Ines Ben Othman, who was arrested Dec. 19 and jailed without bail after criticizing a police officer in Tunisia. The human rights organization criticizes the government for "laws that criminalize insult and defamation against government critics, journalists, bloggers, and artists."

Countries in the Arabian Peninsula have tightened their grip on the media since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The United Arab Emirates quickly crushes anti-government sentiment including any support for the Muslim Brotherhood or other organizations. Waleed Al-Shehhi, a citizen journalist in the country, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2013 for tweeting about the trial of 94 Islamists accused of attempting to overthrow the government.

Matt J. Duffy in his published study "Arab Media Regulations: Identifying Restraints on Freedom of the Press in Six Arabian Gulf Countries" describes the difficulties faced by researchers studying the issue in the Arab region.

First, a lack of academic freedom in universities perpetuates self-censorship on subjects deemed "sensitive." Researchers can be fired or expelled from countries.

Secondly, self-censoring, Arabic-speaking researchers avoid comprehensive study on the media, which means research relies upon English-speaking researchers who face a language barrier. Laws are written in Arabic without English translations in many Arab countries.

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Lastly, a lack of transparency compounds to the problems that researchers face. Obtaining information is difficult, whether in English or Arabic.

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