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GOVERNMENTS RESORT TO NEW TYPE OF SMEAR CAMPAIGN

Governments in the Middle East have taken their smear campaigns to a new level, planting news, adverts and paid-for editorials discrediting journalists and free expression advocates in foreign papers as well as the local press, report the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) and IFEX members.

According to Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship, who is also TMG's chair, the most brazen practitioner of this kind of propaganda is Tunisia, which has unleashed a storm of such material apparently in reaction to the way Tunisia's appalling human rights record has been exposed internationally.

In the most recent case, former Tunisian diplomat Khaled Ben Said was jailed on torture charges for eight years in France in December. At the same time, one of the leading witnesses for the prosecution, journalist and free expression campaigner Sihem Bensedrine, was herself the target of a propaganda attack, says TMG.

The government claimed impropriety in her funding relationships with international donors - even though her donors and partners are on public record confirming Bensedrine's due diligence.

The claims appeared in state-owned and state-sponsored news organisations. But more surprisingly, international news agency United Press International (UPI) reprinted the accusations and the story was widely circulated in Arabic and French.

Jayasekera says the purpose was to discredit Bensedrine, a staunch human rights defender whose magazine "Kalima" is banned in Tunisia and who has been both jailed and beaten by security forces because of her criticism of the authorities.

TMG members urged UPI "to protect its reputation by making appropriate amends, and for the agency to take steps to ensure it is not embroiled in this kind of state disinformation again."

In Egypt the pro-government daily "Rosa al-Yousef" published a quarter-page advertisement filled with allegations defaming Bensedrine and topped by a photo of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, reported the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The head of ANHRI, Gamal Eid, has been defamed in the same paper.

"We are used to these campaigns and attacks being waged against us," said ANHRI and 18 other Egyptian human rights groups in a joint statement. "However, what angers us is how they tarnish the name of a once great media institution that? helped to create freedom of the press in Egypt."

The pro-government Egyptian press has long used this tactic at home. Human rights and democracy advocates Hisham Kassem, Ayman Nour and Saad Edine Ibrahim have all been slandered after they raised Egypt's human rights record on the international stage, says Jayasekera.

A study by the rights organisation Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence in Egypt revealed increasing human rights abuses by journalists against their own kind. The study, covering the period from February 2007 to January 2008, confirmed that "Rosa al-Yousef" was ranked first in Egypt at printing articles that intimidate and insult other newspapers and journalists.

The critical paper "Al Masry El Youm" and its editor, Magdi al-Gallad, and the famous opposition weekly "Al Dustour" and its editor, Ibrahim Issa, were among the favourite targets of "Rosa al-Yousef" and other Egyptian papers known for turning their backs on journalism ethics. See results of the study here: http://tinyurl.com/9orul9
English version: http://tinyurl.com/89lnn4
Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has reported a slandering media campaign against seven human rights defenders, including former president of BCHR Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. A group of 14 youth activists, currently facing charges of planning to carry out acts of terrorism, named the seven well-known human rights defenders as the instigators and trainers of the plans. According to the youths' lawyers, the detainees showed signs of ill-treatment and torture during interrogation. But the accusations were repeated without reservation in all the major Bahrain dailies and government-owned and run TV networks.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), fears that rights defenders have been slandered to deter them from defending Shi'a minority rights, and is asking for supporters to write to the authorities expressing concern that the activists were framed. See: http://tinyurl.com/7uyulv

This strategy of blurring the lines between truthful reporting, unattributed opinion and propaganda, coordinated to serve a political objective, is also being extensively developed by the U.S. in Iraq, despite domestic legal restraints and strong ethical opposition, says Jayasekera.

According to Jayasekera, the responsibility of separating truth from lies rests on journalists. "They should treat false reports with healthy scepticism and always question the motive behind the message," he says. "In today's high-volume, high-speed media environment it has never been more important to ask not only 'Is this person telling me the truth?' but also to ask 'Why is he telling me this?'"

Visit these links:
- Jayasekera's op-ed, published in "The Daily Star", Lebanon: http://tinyurl.com/7o7den
- TMG: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/
- ANHRI: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99843/
- BCHR: http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/2661
(21 January 2009)

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