Echoes of 2011: Media Freedom in Egypt

With former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on July 3, Egyptians who took to the streets have bristled at the description of the events as a military coup. They argue that millions called for Morsi’s removal, so it should be described as a popular revolution. The definition of July 3, however, cannot be limited to one day, or one week. Rather, its definition lies in understanding what has transpired in the two months since Morsi’s removal. What we can be sure of is that the past two months have witnessed echo after echo of the military-led transition under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after Hosni Mubarak’s removal, most notably in its effects on media freedom in Egypt.

Since Morsi’s removal, media freedom has suffered. That is not to say it did not under Morsi. Rather than abolish the ministry of information, one of the key demands of the January 25 Revolution, Morsi instead installed a Brotherhood-man as its head. Under Morsi, state media journalists and newspapers found themselves facing dismissals and censorship. TV channels were suspended amid allegations of incitement and insulting the president, as Mubarak-era legislation was used to silence Morsi’s critics. While Morsi issued a law preventing the pretrial detention of defendants in press related cases, he fell short of amending the law in any meaningful way, or at the very least, issuing a moratorium on repressive laws.

With Morsi’s removal, the situation has only worsened. Charges levied against journalists and media outlets have varied from incitement, spreading false information, harming national security, filming military property and the possession of weapons.

Several pro-Morsi TV channels, among them Misr 25 and al-Hafez, were shut down, their studios raided immediately after Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s speech on July 3 announcing Morsi’s removal. Islamist channel al-Hafez has since been taken permanently off the air by court order, in relation to a lawsuit filed prior to July 3 by actor Hany Ramzy.The channel had previously come under harsh criticism, accused of inciting against the secular political current and Egypt’s Christian minority. Sheikh Mahmoud Shaaban called for the assassination of National Salvation Front leaders on air on al-Hafez, while the channel conducted a poll during clashes that broke out at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in April asking viewers if they thought a civil war would break out between Egypt’s Christians and Muslims. As a result, the manner in which the channel was abruptly taken off the air was criticized by few in Egypt. Director of the Arab Network for Human Rights, Gamal Eid, however, speaking to the Committee to Protect Journalists, likened the censorship of al-Hafez to Mubarak-era “group punishment.”

International channels sympathetic with the Brotherhood have also felt the brunt of the government’s actions. Qatari channel Al Jazeera’s offices were raided and their journalists detained or deported, while a court ordered that their Egypt-specific channel, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, stop broadcasting. Currently, at least two Jazeera staff members remain detained. Journalist Abdallah Elshamy was arrested during the violent dispersal of the Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in on August 14 and faces charges of possession of weapons. Cameraman Mohamed Badr, arrested on July 15, is reportedly being charged with “possessing a firearm, endangering national security and insulting the police.” Turkish news agencies has also been targeted, with the Ihlas News Agency and the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation offices raided, and in the case of Ihlas, their bureau chief detained.

Egyptian Journalists publishing information specifically about the military are also among those being detained. Sinai-based journalist Ahmed Abu Deraa is being brought before a military court on charges of publishing false information on the military, as well as “communicating with ‘terrorist’ groups in Sinai, filming military property, and provoking the armed forces.”  The clampdown on Egyptian journalists has since expanded to include state media. Nile TV presenter Shahira Amin alleges she was dismissed from her position after appearing on CNN and describing recent events in Egypt as “increasingly looking like a coup.” She says she is currently being investigated for “incitement against the authority” after colleagues filed complaints against her. Meanwhile, journalist Emad Sayed Abu Zeid, a journalist working for state daily Al Ahram, was arrested on charges of “spreading false news” on a pro-Muslim Brotherhood site. 

In addition to a media clampdown on journalists, there also seems to be emerging an institutional clampdown. The presidency formed a new Supreme Press Council (SPC) at the end of August with only fifteen members as opposed to the standard fifty. It was agreed that since the 2012 constitution has yet to be amended, the formation of a National Press Council and National Broadcast Council, both mentioned in the constitution, would be put on hold. On the surface, the names included in the SPC were reassuring, but judging by amendments to the constitution, the fifteen members do not appear to have much leverage or power. While they are currently drafting amendments to the freedom of speech articles in the constitution to present the the fifty-member constituent assembly, it is unclear if their recommendations will be used. In fact, the Press Syndicate, whose members make up two-thirds of the SPC, made recommendations to the ten-member committee of legal experts, only to have them largely ignored. Gamal Abdel Reheem, a member of the Press Syndicate board, described the draft amended by the ten-member committee as “worse than the 2012 constitution.” 

Article 51 on press freedom in the amended draft has seen a small, but significant change. It states that the closure or confiscation of media outlets is prohibited except with a court order, while also adding that control over the media is prohibited, with the exception of specific censorship that may be imposed in times of war or during a state of emergency. The 2012 constitution stated that censorship may be imposed in times of war and public mobilization. The addition of the state of emergency is new to the amendment. It’s worth noting that with one month of state of emergency in Egypt almost over, the presidency announced on September 12 that it would be extended for another two months – the maximum period for which it can be prolonged.  

The 2012 constitution’s National Media Council (NMC), which will regulate radio, television, print and digital press, has been carried over into the amended constitution, but with a few key changes. As in the 2012 constitution, it makes no reference to the NMC’s actual formation, leaving this instead to the law. While the original constitution had the NMC ensuring media observes the “values and constructive traditions of society,” in the amended draft it is also tasked with “protecting national unity and societal peace.” Criticisms of media freedom in the 2012 constitution can also be made of the amended draft. Ambiguous language leaves concepts like traditions of society and the protection of national unity open to far too much interpretation.

The drafting of the constitution, the targeting of journalists, whether sympathetic to the Brotherhood or critical of the military or regime, and a Press Syndicate that appears to goes largely ignored, hopes for media freedom in Egypt are even more distant than they were under Morsi. As the Egyptian government has expressed its disapproval of international media for its portrayal of recent events in Egypt, urging neutrality on the part of all, it appears to be taking all steps possible to ensure that portrayal is in keeping with the government line.

Nancy Messieh is the associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource, a blog following Egypt’s transition.

Image: Photo: Ahmed Abu Deraa Facebook Page