The press in the South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region is subject to the political conditions and fluctuations in each country. There cannot be a free and independent press in countries controlled by repressive and totalitarian regimes because the press cannot safely reveal facts, criticize the government, or demand accountability. Since issues related to gender, sexuality, and LGBTIQ people in these countries are considered taboo and are controlled from a repressive societal and religious angle, knowledge of these issues is prohibited. In this atmosphere, rumors, misinformation, and even hate speech related to the LGBTIQ community flourish, and anything that contradicts the accepted stereotypes of gender and sexual identity is prohibited.
As a result, these issues do not receive much attention or press coverage in the region. When these issues are covered, the focus is on crimes, rumors, misinformation, and generalizations.
SWANA is a geographical term for countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Culturally and historically diverse, they are made up of countries that border the Mediterranean, Red, and Arabian Seas as well as the Persian Gulf. They include the following: Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
The countries that were subjected to French colonialism inherited primitive laws related to family and relationships, leading to the criminalization of homosexuality. On the other hand, most countries previously subjected to British colonialism do not explicitly criminalize these relationships. Instead, they use other laws to combat all types of relationships that fall outside the entity of marriage as defined by religion or the state.
In countries with little to no freedom of the press, the use of hate speech is allowed, and misinformation based on harmful stereotypes can be spread in a way that affects both the people who make up the LGBTIQ community and society as a whole. This results in their human rights being stripped away by the government.
For example, many media outlets in this region still link some diseases to same-sex relationships, such as HIV, Coronavirus, monkeypox, and others. Still, other media outlets promote a fixed set of gender expectations and identities, entrenching them by criticizing everything that is out of the “ordinary.” This may include clothing, colors, jobs, or daily practices that fall under the traditional gender binary of male and female.
We also cannot forget the Western media campaigns that drew attention to the difficult or double lives of the LGBTIQ community in Qatar during the World Cup 2022 and negatively affected members of this community. They have experienced hate speech from both traditional and social media because of this attention, which increased restrictions. Some countries, including Kuwait and Algeria, have gone so far as to confiscate any products sold in markets that include the colors of a rainbow.
According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) yearly, countries from the Middle East and North Africa were ranked at the bottom of the Index. Of the 180 countries listed, Syria ranked at 175, Yemen at 168, Iraq at 167, Palestine at 156, and Algeria at 136.
Gender and sexual issues remain outside the focus of concern of the Arabic-language press in the SWANA region. This is due to the absence of human rights principles and transparency in the traditional press as well as social media. However, dialogue about gender and sexuality has begun to change as people have launched alternative media platforms on the internet. These platforms present information and facts that have been absent from societal discussions for decades.