Prague, 4 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Insulting a monarch or a president can still be a risky thing to do in many parts of the world.
Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet found that out first hand when he was sent to jail last year for three years for comments construed to be insulting to King Muhammad and the royal family.
Lmrabet's fate illustrates the type of restrictions on democratic rights common in the Muslim states of North Africa.
"Education lags behind, and probably it is the most important lack, and the biggest shortcoming, when it comes to socio-economic development."
In a scathing report issued in Paris yesterday (www.rsf.org), the media monitoring body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the situation across the Maghreb region, as it is called, is one of the worst in the world. RSF Regional Specialist Severine Cazes said: "There have been calls for reforms in some countries, and some journalists have been released [from jail], but in the end, freedom of the press is very limited and restricted in most North African countries."
Events in Algeria show how robust the confrontation between the authorities and the media can get. The RSF report says that, in 2003, there was no let-up in legal harassment, prosecutions, court sentences, intimidation, and physical attacks against Algerian journalists.
That, however, did not deter Algerian newspapers from continuing strong attacks on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and other top officials, particularly on the question of corruption. One daily ("Liberta") ran photos of Algeria's leaders under a headline reading "thieves."
In neighboring Tunisia, the situation is much the same. In its report, RSF says Tunisia has continued "to advertise itself as an oasis of stability and modernity and the region's most solid bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism."
But it says the gap is widening between "this image peddled abroad and the increasing violation of human rights in the country itself."
Further east, another Maghreb nation, Libya, is making strenuous efforts to end its political and economic isolation. Among other things, it has renounced all programs on weapons of mass destruction. It is also promising economic reforms, but RSF spokeswoman Cazes says this radical turnaround has certainly not affected the state of the media -- not yet at least: "Libya is promising a lot, but up till now, freedom of the press is nonexistent in that country. All the media are being very tightly controlled by [Libyan leader] Colonel [Muammar] Ghaddafi."
Regional analyst Eberhard Rhein notes it is now almost 10 years since the European Union began its so-called "Barcelona dialogue" with the Maghreb countries. This dialogue is supposed to bring economic progress to the Maghreb and bind the two sides in ever-deepening relations. But progress so far has been unspectacular.
"Overall progress has been slower, much slower, than in the European Union accession countries,” Rhein says. “[In North Africa,] they lack, of course, one big and supreme incentive -- namely, prospective membership of the EU."
What is particularly damaging, says Rhein, is that the North African states lack the educational standards that are necessary in the modern world.
"Education lags behind, and probably it is the most important lack, and the biggest shortcoming, when it comes to socio-economic development," he said.
But Rhein says the negative developments in the region should not be exaggerated. The Islamic insurgency in Algeria appears to be over, Libya is making every effort to reconnect itself with the international community, and Morocco's new king may eventually confirm his reform credentials.
Rhein says progress is being made, but too slowly: "There has been no regression since Barcelona, [but] progress should be faster. And the big question is, how can we jointly get them to go faster?"