Better but worse: Egypt's media fights back

The infamous cover page of El Tahrir newspaper of a female protested being beaten. The ruling Egyptian media has been accused of clamping down on liberties and on the Press.  

In the immediate aftermath of the January 2011 uprising, expectations were of a new dawn for press freedom in Egypt, a country where for decades the media was firmly held in check by the authorities.

The honeymoon period didn't last long following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak as the army began to flex its muscles soon after.

A significant number of activists and journalists have been taken to court over a variety of offences while media outlets such as Al Jazeera Mubasher faced censure and closure for broadcasting images deemed detrimental to the country's security and for showing up the ruling junta at its most brutal.

But does the current climate signal how freedom of the press and expression will fare in the near future? And does Egypt's fourth estate have the ability to beat being gagged by the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF)?

Systematic crackdown

The drip-drip effect of the media's curtailment started soon after Mubarak stepped down with the sentencing of activist and blogger Mikael Nabil to three years in prison for his anti-army posts in April 2011.

Ever since there has been a systematic and at times brutal crackdown on members of the press, citizen-journalists and media outlets deemed to be critical of the ruling brass.

Last March military court referrals were issued on the likes of writer and author Alaa Al-Aswany and TV host Yosri Fouda, and overall 12 journalists, bloggers, politicians and other pro-revolution figures, under the citations of allegedly inciting hate against SCAF and attempting to bring down the state.

In February, Australian journalist Austin Mackell, his translator and fixer Aliya Alwi and US student Derek Ludovici were arrested and charged with inciting workers to go on strike and participate in civil disobedience campaign in the industrial city of Mahalla, with both Mackell and Ludovici currently barred from travelling pending their trial.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports some 50 arrests and attacks on journalists were made during the months of November and December; Reporters Without Borders (RWB) now ranks Egypt 166th in its press freedom index for 2011, a steep drop from its ranking of 127th in 2010 stating that SCAF has “dashed the hopes of democrats by continuing the Mubarak dictatorship’s practices.”

Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council. PHOTO | FILE

It is sentiment shared by Human Rights Watch (HRW) who report the “climate for free expression in Egypt has worsened since Hosni Mubarak was ousted a year ago...Security forces have engaged in brutal beatings and used excessive force against demonstrators in Cairo and tried to stop journalists from reporting on them.

"Actions like these were hallmarks of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but they also have been used repeatedly in the year since the SCAF assumed control on February 11, 2011.”

According to Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Director of the Middle East and North Africa program, the variation differs in regards to what yardstick is used to measure the current climate.

Better but worse

“In some very specific respects it (media climate) is at its worst, and in others it's better. Freedom of expression is much better, but the crackdown of journalists is worse. However, people who are speaking out are more daring, more willing to cross the red line in pursuit of getting the true story out.

"The other side of the coin is that SCAF and both military and civilian prosecutors are pursuing journalists more aggressively.”

Another take on the same issue is that SCAF has no qualms in showing its true colours. MidEast analyst at the Eurasia Group Hani Sabra says to deem the media clampdown today as being worse than during Mubarak's time is an accurate assessment.

“The reality is that the SCAF leadership operates as a direct military autocracy; Mubarak had to pretend to play the rule of civilian leader, had to pretend to have the trappings of civilian leader. SCAF don't. SCAF has arrested some 12-13,000 civilians and referred them to military trials, more in the span of a year than in Mubarak's 30 years in power.”

Even with the ongoing climate aimed to curtail the media it's not stopped a core group from continuing their aggressive reporting of the army's actions.

Infamous picture

One prominent act was by Al-Tahrir (liberation) paper which ran the now infamous front page of the undressed and beaten female protester with the headline 'LIARS'. A landmark moment in Egypt's press as it was a direct attack on the country's most revered and powerful institute – the army.

“It's the work of pioneer journalists back in 2003 who actually created the space for the media to be more upfront, you have a more aggressive journalism field now then ever before, they're not cowed by the crackdown. There's a proliferation of satellite channels and journalists, as well as access to the internet and various forums which helps,” says Sabra.

The army has always been untouchable in regards to how it was perceived and regarded by the public and how the media reported on it.

In an interview with the London based El Majalla, deputy editor of the Daily News Egypt Sarah El-Sirgany says “...the military has 'always been the number one red line' in Egypt.

"Prior to the revolution, any negative articles about the army were unthinkable. But all that changed after the fall of Hosni Mubarak when the Military Council came to power and journalists could not conceivably write about Egyptian politics without referencing the army.”

'Cosmetic' step

Abdel Dayem adds that some of the central demands of the revolution was a freer media, a freer national broadcasting operation and in an effort to assuage these demands the ministry of information was neutralised for a few months, which was a “cosmetic, small step in the right direction.

But the authorities failed to do anything with that positive step, they've undone any progress made. However, there are more individuals writing, reporting is more critical on more issues that were usually considered red lines.”

Nonetheless, it appears there are two factors contributing to the media's muzzling: the legal penal code which is a myriad of confusing rules that carry heavy punishment and some cases of self-censorship.

It's not that difficult for the ruling military to crackdown on the press as under Article 184 of the penal code 'insulting the military establishment' is a crime as is insulting the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council and the Courts.

Last May the National Coalition for Media Freedom which advocates the “complete overhaul of media legislation” and other similar directives was set up with the involvement of a number of Egypt's leading press and legal names.

Contradictions

According to one of the lawyers, “The criminalisation of journalism is not just in the penal code but also in the press and publications law. For example, the journalists syndicate law states that you cannot gain membership in the syndicate unless you have a body of journalistic work, but in a different clause in the same law it states that it is illegal, and in fact criminal, to engage in journalism without membership in the syndicate.”

Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, believes since the ouster of Mubarak the consequences of being critical of those in power has become more unpredictable.

"There is no telling what the army and the general intelligence are capable of or what the punishment is going to look like," he said in an interview with NPR, adding that if one were to criticise the military country their patriotism and loyalty are questioned.

"In this atmosphere of fear, the result is not that the journalists are becoming less free or less daring, but their employers and editors and station owners are becoming much more terrified because the threat now is not crossing red lines, it's a threat of working against Egypt's national security.”

While the issue of self-censorship has become a factor it's one that is mainly practiced by editors looking to safeguard their publications or by media personalities wanting to make a point as in the case of popular TV presenter Fouda who suspended his own show back in November in protest after an episode was ordered off the air by the military.

Self-censorship

Back in December publication of the Egypt Independent, the English edition of the Masry El Youm daily, was halted by a senior editor over an article which suggested there was internal objection over the way the army handled the transition of power; though as of yet such similar acts have been far and few in between.

Even with the ever continuing changes in the country's political scene journalists will continue to publish work regardless of the consequences they may face. January's uprising has given many the opportunity to voice and express their thoughts and critiques, to push the envelope and not be cowed into silence irrespective of the authorities continuing attempts to muzzle them.

How the political climate pans out remains to be seen but undoubtedly it will have an impact on the media with an Islamist dominated parliament, a constitutional panel that has seen the liberals and secularists withdraw their participation as well as a presidential campaign where as of yet there is no stand out favourite candidate.

“Whatever happens politically, the landscape will be a reflection of how the media field will be like. When the dust settles a lot of things will become clearer,” says Abdel Dayyem.

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