Pervasive Use of Mubarak’s Legislation to Control Egypt’s Media


A pervasive fear that constraints will be placed on freedom of expression is taking hold in the wake of several worrying developments in Egypt’s media landscape. The country has witnessed a surge in attacks against free speech, and a return to authoritarian practices – an indication to some that Egypt may be shifting away from a military totalitarian state, but heading toward a theocratic one. Muslim Brotherhood lawyers have repeatedly filed politically motivated lawsuits based on an arsenal of freedom-restricting Mubarak-era laws, none of which were amended before the dissolution of the People’s Assembly.

Journalists have expressed cause for concern as a result of the appointment of the new state media editors-in-chief. An initial reading on the process and the appointees earned itself comparisons to the previous regime. Egypt’s journalists believe that their fears were confirmed when the new editors-in-chief began rejecting opinion articles that attacked the Muslim Brotherhood. Articles critical of the Brotherhood were allegedly prevented from appearing in al-Ahram and al-Akhbar. As Egyptian author Alaa al Aswany points out even editors-in-chief who do not have Muslim Brotherhood leanings “will be wary of tackling subjects related to the Brotherhood or Islamists,” for fear of losing their jobs.

Last week, the General Investment Authority suspended the transmission of private television channel al-Fara’een for 45 days, issuing a warning that if it continued in its ‘transgressions’, its license would be revoked.  The investment minister has also taken things one step further, threatening to revoke licenses of private television channels that broadcast what he vaguely described as “rumors.”   

The suspension of al-Fara’een came as a direct result of statements made by the channel owner and talk show host, Tawfiq Okasha, who is currently under investigation amid allegations of inciting violence and calling for the toppling of the regime. While his statement, interpreted as calling for the assassination of the president, is not considered protected free speech under Egyptian law, Okasha has denied the allegations, and a local rights group has put out a call for lawyers to defend him.

On the other hand, as journalists are tried on charges of incitement, insulting the president, and propagating lies, more dangerous infractions are being overlooked. For instance, Sheikh Hashem Islam issued a fatwa saying that those who participate in the August 24th demonstrations against Morsi should be killed. In the wake of a backlash in which Al Azhar distanced itself from the Sheikh, he said that his words were “misinterpreted.”

While some argue that Okasha’s statements went one step too far, the suspension of the TV channel as a whole is a measure that should never have been taken. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) issued a statement condemning the move, comparing it to a similar action taken by Mubarak’s government in 2010 suspending several Salafi satellite channels. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English publication, IkwhanWeb described the move as part of “a more comprehensive series of crackdowns” targeting privately owned channels ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections.

The EOHR statement “emphasize[d] the importance of issuing orders of this nature strictly under a judicial decree and not as an administrative action. Such an overstep may allow executive powers to suspend oppositional media and press outlets, without any judicial oversight.”

Within this legal framework, a precedent has also already been set whether under Mubarak or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, with convictions of libel and defamation bringing with them a punishment ranging from a heavy fine to a 15-year-prison sentence. Today, it remains illegal to insult the president. Investigating Okasha, while perfectly legal under Mubarak’s pervasive laws, is politically convenient for the Muslim Brotherhood and is also an example of their attempt to muzzle their opponents.

It is the Brotherhood’s right to resort to the law if it perceives any comments as “slanderous,” but only after it has purged Mubarak’s legal armory of the laws that restrict freedom of expression and conflict with international standards for freedom. The current laws are vague in determining what constitutes a violation, and in many cases can result in prison time for Egypt’s journalists. Charges such as insulting the president, propagating lies, disturbing the general peace, and attacking religious faith are a noose around the neck of freedom of expression. President Morsi’s confirmation that he will legally pursue “slanderers” is an early warning that he will revert to ways of the former regime and the use of unjust laws.

These warning signs prompted 30 Egyptian arts and media organizations to form the Egyptian Movement for the Freedom of Press and Opinion. The organization issued a statement describing the assaults against freedom of opinion as “the same ploys used by the toppled regime.” A number of Egyptian newspaper journalists also refrained from writing their articles in protest to the appointments of the new state media editors-in-chief.  

With the constitution nearing completion despite ongoing debates surrounding a few contentious articles, there appears to be an understanding among its members regarding a free media. Wahid Abdel-Meguid, the official spokesperson for the Constituent Assembly told Ahram Online, “There is a consensus that national media should no longer be regulated by the state or the upper consultative house of Shura Council.” He points to a proposed solution, saying, “As demanded by the Journalists’ Syndicate, the national press will be regulated by an independent media authority like the BBC and it should not be subject to any kind of state control.” This comes shortly after Morsi’s statement announcing the intention to form a committee to oversee both state and private media.

Forming an independent media authority as a solution has come up repeatedly over the past year, but little has been done other than to suggest the model. The EOHR has also suggested a revision of the current legislation addressing freedom of press, constitutional protection of freedom of speech, the creation of a media charter to be used as a guideline for professional media conduct, as well as to allow for private ownership of the media. 

Magdy Samaan is a visiting fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute. 

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. 

Photo Credit: Getty

Image: 610x_136.jpg