By Michelle Nichols
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Suppression of journalists amid popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa has been unprecedented, experts say, with more than 500 attacks -- some of them deadly -- documented by a media rights watchdog.
While the Committee to Protect Journalists said press freedom has improved in Egypt and Tunisia since protesters ousted the presidents of both countries this year, it described the situation as only graduating from "horrendous to bad."
But whether unrest in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Saudi Arabia leads to greater democracy in the region, experts say access to social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook would help thwart traditionally tight censorship.
"It is not possible to stuff a sock in that many mouths," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in the Middle East and North Africa.
"There used to be a time when the number of mouths was limited and (governments) could shut all of them up all the time. That model is not longer viable," he said.
Dayem said of 14 journalists were killed worldwide this year with 10 of those deaths in the Middle East and North Africa. The hundreds of other attacks on the media in the region included detentions, destruction of equipment and death threats.
Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch deputy director of the North Africa division, said the uprising had led to a "net gain" for freedom of the media in the region.
"It's possible to disseminate information from places like Bahrain or Syria in a way that wasn't possible 10 years ago. It's just night and day comparison," Stork said.
"On balance definitely there's a freer exchange of information but not because governments are allowing it -- because they haven't figured out how to control it," he said.
CENSORSHIP LESS EFFECTIVE
Limits on the media would be much harder to maintain in the future, partly because of more access to cell phones and the Internet, said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
"It's also because the 'Arab Revolts' have delegitimized censorship even more, just as they have delegitimized stealing elections and stealing public funds," Abrams said.
"Many governments will continue to try to intimidate journalists physically or through phony prosecutions ... but it will be less and less effective," he said.
However, Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa, said that while some protesters were demanding more freedom for journalists, it was too early to tell what sort of progress might be made.
"We have seen the emergence of the blogger, the citizen journalist ... breaking through," he said.
Stork said while Egypt appeared to be moving in a positive direction, media freedom had been dealt a blow when the country's ruling military council demanded last month that coverage by Egyptian newspapers had to be approved by the military's Morale Affairs Directorate and intelligence.
"The military obviously doesn't like criticism or critical discussion and they have instructed the media not to engage in it and certainly the major outlets have complied," Stork said.
Dayem warned that if there was no change in government in some countries it could result in harsher media treatment, referring an unsuccessful popular uprising in Iran in 2009.
"That certainly hasn't resulted in a freer media," he said. "In fact, it's resulted in a harsher climate for the media in Iran and it has resulted almost directly in Iran being the world's worst jailer of journalists in 2010."
(Editing by Mark Egan and Bill Trott)