Censorship, legal prosecution and imprisonment continue to create barriers for much of the media in the Middle East and Pakistan.

The media face a threat from Islamic fundamentalists, said visiting journalism Prof. Javed Nazir. He spoke last night in a lecture titled “Media and Fundamentalists in Islamic Countries.”

A former editor for The Frontier Post, an independent English-language newspaper in Pakistan, Nazir worked as a journalist for 25 years. When the newspaper printed a letter that contained offensive references to the prophet of Islam, he feared retribution by the government and fled Pakistan.

Censorship by the government, often run by dictators, has led to widespread apprehension among journalists in the region, Nazir said.

“There is this pervasive fear,” he said. “What has triggered this fear? … Dictators and censorship.”

The greatest threat for journalists in the Middle East and Pakistan is the power of Islamic fundamentalists, Nazir said.

“These people are extremely committed to their cause,” he added. “Their organization is like the Russian Communist Party … No obstacles can stop them from their cause – to serve the cause of Islam.”

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf “has stopped appearing in public. He is scared of being assassinated by fundamentalists,” he said.

The Islamic revolution in Iran that replaced the monarchy with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 reshaped media in the Middle East, Nazir said.

The government controls much of the media in the Middle East by forbidding critical and dissenting voices from being published, he said. However, relatively free media exists in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and sometimes in Pakistan, he added.

“The Middle East represents the world’s most closed media,” Nazir said. “What’s conspicuously absent are critics of the government.”

Al-Jazeera – the Arab-language television network based in Qatar – is the one significant exception to the prevailing censorship of the media in the Middle East, he said. Al-Jazeera has challenged issues such as polygamy, corruption and nepotism.

“Al-Jazeera comes across as a fresh breeze,” Nazir said. “But Al-Jazeera shouldn’t have broadcasted images of the POWs” – the American soldiers recently captured by Iraq.

In Pakistan, he said, dictators try to buy journalists’ loyalties. Yet if they resist, journalists are prone to intimidation, abduction and physical abuse, he added.

“You find fundamentalists permeating in every social fabric,” Nazir said. “There’s a war going on between moderates and Islamists.”

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