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In the “war” against COVID-19, several governments in the Middle East are suspending the written press “until further notice.”
The media sector and the press, in particular, were in poor condition in the Middle East and North Africa region. As elsewhere, after declining revenues for years, digitization, low-quality content and copying by the authorities led to a decline in the number of print newspapers and readers.
COVID-19 is the latest blow to the written press. As various governments throughout the region suspended newspaper circulation, the print media became a silent victim of the virus:
March 17, 2020: In Jordan, the Council of Ministers suspended the publication of all newspapers “because they contribute to the transmission of the pandemic”.
March 22, 2020: In Oman, the Supreme Committee to deal with COVID-19 ordered all newspapers, magazines and other publications to suspend their work and circulation. In Morocco, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport suspended all publication and distribution of printed editions because “a large number of people use printed paper daily, this contributes to the spread of the virus, therefore it is necessary to prohibit the role to protect the health of citizens. “
March 23, 2020: In Yemen, the Hadi government's minister of communication, who has been internationally recognized, issued a decree suspending the circulation of printed newspapers as a preventive measure to stop the spread of COVID-19.
March 24, 2020: In the United Arab Emirates, the National Media Council suspended the distribution of all printed newspapers and magazines.
> The series of bans imposed on printed newspapers throughout the region further destabilize a fragile industry and create a vacuum in the circulation of information.
For journalists struggling with precarious working conditions, these closings will inflict serious financial repercussions, and even layoffs.
The Jordanian Association of Journalists called on the Government to urgently support the sector and protect journalists. “Hundreds of journalists and press sector workers are not receiving income and may lose their jobs,” said the association, adding that the government must “find adequate measures that will allow print newspapers to continue (publishing).”
For readers, these measures had a negative impact on their right of access to information. The ban in Yemen, for example, has even a more profound impact as internet penetration is low, only reaching 25% in 2019 – and it is mainly concentrated among youth in urban areas. It is unclear how readers of print publications will transition to online media, whether they will transition, or who will fill this gap.
Access to a reliable source of fact-based information is essential, particularly during a crisis, when the media is used to understand the situation and obtain practical information. However, most governments in the region – which retain old authoritarian practices – have instead tried to control and restrict freedom of expression.
In reality, there is no evidence or correlation between the circulation of print newspapers and the spread of COVID-19. It is considered safe to receive packages, such as newspapers, even in areas that have reported a high incidence of COVID-19 cases.
According to the World Health Organization:
The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.
The probability of an infected person contaminating commercial property is low and the risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 through a package that has been moved and has been exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low.
Therefore, there is a possibility that the decisions to close print newspapers were politically motivated and not based on scientific evidence.
Other countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic chose a different approach. Even in Italy, which is the epicenter of the crisis and where the total number of victims is close to 20,000 and strict quarantine rules are applied, newspapers have not stopped publishing.
In France, which was also severely hit by the virus, they classified newspaper vendors as “indispensable commercial activity” and thus allowed them to continue their work. Different sectors, local councils, parcel delivery companies and distributors established alliances to ensure that printed newspapers are available to the public.
In the UK, the free newspaper Meter and the print edition of Evening Standard, widely distributed to people in subway stations, have lost a large audience with emergency closings. Now they distribute them in supermarkets and distribute them from house to house.
These examples demonstrate collective efforts to keep the public informed. The free flow of information is preserved and this contributes to building resilience in a crisis.
The Middle East did not adopt this approach.
Their way of reacting to major challenges, such as COVID-19, is to maintain repression and control. Human rights and freedom of expression are being oppressed without further opposition or objection.
Meanwhile in Iraq, protesters continue to ignore the restrictions and clash with the police to protest against the murder of anti-government activists; political movements and demonstrations in Algeria and Lebanon were cut short with the adoption of social distancing and prohibitions on congregations.
An Algerian activist, who asked to remain anonymous, told Global Voices:
They could not have dreamed of it. This virus is a benediction for the authorities. It gave them the excuse to stop us gathering and protesting for change that in other circumstances we would never have accepted.
They couldn't have dreamed it. This virus is a blessing for the authorities. It gave them an excuse to keep us from meeting and protesting for a change that we would never have accepted under other circumstances.
Now that the printing press has stopped working in some countries in the region, there is no guarantee that it will emerge again. Given that there is no date or sign of when newspapers will be able to return to newsstands again, and if they will be able to return, could the simple act of picking up a printed newspaper or magazine become a distant memory in countries like Jordan, Yemen and Morocco?