Egypt’s Self-Appointed Gatekeepers

Egypt TV.jpg

On the afternoon of 24 March I found myself in a taxi headed to the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) alongside a Salafi cab driver whilst pretending to be a member of Hazemoon, supporters of former presidential candidate and the self-proclaimed Lion of Islam, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

Abu Ismail and several other prominent Salafi figures had called on their supporters to lay siege to the EMPC, the complex that houses most private satellite television channel studios, in response to what they perceived as biased media coverage of the clashes that took place in front of the Muslim Brotherhood’s main headquarters in Moqattam the Friday before.

For the second time Islamist protesters deemed it their right to surround the complex and act as television’s ultimate gatekeepers, blocking the entrances and setting up checkpoints, allowing only the journalists, presenters and guests they deemed acceptable for the Egyptian public’s viewing.

Naturally most people who had any kind of business inside media city were able to exploit the protester’s ignorance of the series of entrances and made it in anyway, while a few media representatives found themselves the subject of violent attacks.

After all, they had received several indicators that such actions would go unpunished. In December 2012, Abu Ismail called for the first media city siege, which was larger in number and longer in time. 

Back in December the protesters camped outside the complex for a few days, even building stone bathrooms and raiding the sets for cattle. This is not a metaphor; cows were named after television personalities such as Amr Adeeb before being slaughtered and feasted upon.

This time Morsi himself showed tacit approval for the siege. While it was underway, the president gave his now infamous speech suggesting there are fingers inside Egypt where he amongst other unfortunate groups, not including the government, blamed the media for the country’s state of affairs. The number of protesters quadrupled.

I asked one protester what the agenda was for today. Were “we” here to deliver a message peacefully, or would there be any violence?

“We would much prefer it be peaceful and we are here to just deliver a message but if someone like the dog Bassem Youssef shows up there is no problem in slapping him around a little to teach him a lesson. Nothing too strong though, no serious injuries,” was his answer.

I informed him that Youssef filmed his program in front of a live studio audience at a theatre in downtown Cairo, far away from the EMPC in 6 of October, and walked away.

A week later Prosecutor General Tala’at Abdallah issued an arrest warrant against Youssef, a satirist who among other things is accused of contempt of Islam and of insulting the president , the two charges having become tellingly synonymous recently.

Youssef preferred to hand himself in and faced hours of questioning. He says prosecutors went through episodes of his show joke by joke, asking him what he meant by each one.

Youssef showed he was not intimidated by such actions, even appearing on CNN and calling the Morsi regime fascist. Jon Stewart, America’s Bassem Youssef, did a 10-minute segment on Morsi in solidarity, further embarrassing the Egyptian government which in response threatened to shut down CBC, the channel on which Youssef’s program Al-Bernameg airs.

The Investment Authority sent the channel a letter informing them that if they failed to address Youssef’s use of profanity on his show, their licence would be revoked and the whole channel taken off the air. Al-Bernameg runs a clear disclaimer at the start of every show warning viewers it contains mature content.

Two days later the State Security Prosecution, the body meant to be investigating terrorists and drug lords, announced it was redirecting its efforts towards more menacing threats: namely the head of privately-owned channel OnTV Albert Shafiq, journalist and OnTV presenter of the show “Manchette” Gaber Al-Armouty, and Shaimaa Abu Al-Kheir, one of Al-Armouty’s guests on the show and – you cannot make this up – a consultant for the International Committee to Protect Journalists’ Rights.

Their crime? Abu Al-Kheir had spoken via telephone on Al-Armouty’s show, criticizing the Bassem Youssef investigation.

“Egypt’s media under the first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, now enjoys the maximum possible freedom since its inception 150 years ago,” Minister of Information Salah Abdel Maqsoud said the very same day.

Abdel Maqsoud went on to hold a conference about the future of media in Egypt. Some of those invited included Abu Ismail, Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya leader Assem Abdel Maged, and many Salafi television channel heads.

“He [Youssef] is charged with insulting Islam so down with Bassem Youssef and long live religion,” said Atef Abdel Rashid, head of the Salafi Al-Hafez channel, when the subject was brought up.

To be fair, it is not the government or the prosecution who are formulating the charges, and it is indeed as the Brotherhood’s online English presence constantly likes to remind us – private citizens filing these complaints. However, the prosecutor general has made a habit of turning all complaints against the Brotherhood’s rivals into actual cases without investigation.

Morsi, who during his presidential campaign told us “no one will touch media freedoms. There will be no pens broken, no opinions prevented, no channels or newspapers shut down in my era,” has yet to come out and condemn these attacks on freedom of expression and has in fact encouraged them.

Evidence of this surfaced fairly early into his reign, however. Less than 80 days into Morsi’s presidency, television presenter Tawfiq Okasha and newspaper editor Islam Afifi, who granted are both not icons of independent and objective reporting, were already on trial and facing possible jail sentences.

The Shura Council, the lower house of parliament in which Islamists have an over 80 percent super majority, in September appointed a new Supreme Council of Journalism filled with Islamists that in turn went on to appoint new editors for all state-owned publications. Tales of self-censorship within these publications soon surfaced.

Morsi appointed Abdel Maqsoud, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood member and brother of the group’s lawyer as Minister of Information, despite promising the cancel the position. Abdel Maqsoud has no prior experience in television media and the information ministry’s main job is to run state-owned television.

The new constitution cancels the Ministry of Information and replaces it with an independent body akin to the BBC’s board of trustees. This provision remains unfulfilled.

Morsi has effectively taken over the state’s press and television then resorted to legal action against their private-owned counterparts, resurrecting Mubarak era tools and practices.

The problem is that this is not a mere manifestation of a dictatorial regime that wishes to silence criticism, although there is definitely an element of that.

Rather, Morsi like the Salafis at media city believes himself to be the nation’s gatekeeper. The patriarch who knows what is best for his subjects, what they should and should not be exposed to.

When asked indirectly in an interview about Bassem Youssef’s program, President Morsi had this to say: “they [political satire shows] waste people’s time and teach them indecent things. I welcome criticism but it should be constructive and clean.”

It would appear that the president feels that his patriarchal role extends to determining what Egyptians should and should not be watching, just as was the case with the protesters surrounding media city at the end of March.

Ahmed Aboul Enein is an Egyptian journalist and news reporter for Daily News Egypt.

Photo: Mitch Altman

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