Attacks on the Press 2003: Egypt

Egypt boasts many national, party, independent, and opposition publications that feature some of the Arab world’s best-known commentators. But over the years, the government has alternated between crackdowns on the media and periods of relative openness.

For Egyptian journalists, self-censorship is the norm because violating the country’s stringent press laws can land them in prison. Although some positive press freedom developments occurred in 2003, including more freedom to criticize authorities and cover sensitive stories, some topics remained off-limits–including the army, the judiciary, and the security services.

In general, journalists avoid criticizing President Hosni Mubarak, but in 2003, smaller, opposition-party newspapers were able to criticize Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who is playing a more visible role in Egypt’s public life. Weekly opposition papers such as Al-Arabi, the Nasserist Party’s paper, published several critical columns regarding the possibility that Gamal, now the secretary for policy in his father’s ruling National Democratic Party, may become the next president.

Much of the new criticism has appeared in smaller, lower-circulation party papers or in independent papers because authorities see these publications as less of a threat compared with mainstream national dailies. While many journalists are pleased by the critical voices in some opposition papers, they said the professional standards of these publications are low.

Journalists still faced legal threats in 2003. In June, Egypt’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, upheld the convictions of Mostafa Bakry and his brother Mahmoud Bakry, editor-in-chief and deputy editor-in-chief, respectively, of the weekly newspaper Al-Osboa. The two men were sentenced to one year in prison each in 1998 for libeling Mohamed Abdel Aal, head of Egypt’s suspended Social Justice Party. The case stemmed from articles the journalists wrote in 1996 in the opposition daily Al-Ahrar, which Mostafa Bakry was editing at the time, accusing Abdel Aal of financial misconduct. The journalists were imprisoned on June 2, 2003, and spent about three weeks in jail before the prosecutor ordered their release when Abdel Aal was sentenced to prison on charges similar to those mentioned in Al-Ahrar.

The political situation in Egypt was volatile prior to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and many antiwar activists were arrested during protests, where journalists were sometimes harassed. Journalists also said that during the war, editors of the mainstream national newspapers, which maintain close relations with government authorities and whose editors are appointed by President Mubarak, instructed journalists about their coverage and what issues to avoid.

In June, authorities suspended the small Takaful Party newspaper Al-Sada. Editor Yasser Barakat told CPJ that agents from State Security Investigation called in Essam Abdel Razek, the president of the paper’s board of directors and head of the party, for questioning the day the paper was suspended. Barakat said that although no exact reason was given for the suspension, agents cited the paper’s harsh criticism of the United States and Israel.

Foreign newspapers are also at the mercy of the Egyptian government. The London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which often harshly criticizes the Egyptian regime, was banned in Egypt in late August, according to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Abdel Bari Atwan. Atwan said that although he never received an official explanation, he believes that the ban came in response to an opinion piece that criticized the possibility of Gamal Mubarak becoming president.

Several private satellite television channels are available in Egypt, such as the popular Dream TV, which was established in late 2001. While they broadcast mostly entertainment, some news shows feature discussions and debates on political issues. The channels are subject to Egyptian censors, and some shows and segments have been restricted for going too far. Journalists say that access to satellite and cable television is increasing in Egypt, and that regional pan-Arab stations like Abu Dhabi Television and Al-Jazeera were popular among viewers, especially before and during the war in Iraq.