• Government blocks satellite TV, news texting ahead of parliamentary vote.
• Political maneuvering seen as critical editor sacked, another jailed.
12: Satellite television stations taken off the air one month before the election.
Back in 2005, reporters exposed widespread ballot fraud and voter intimidation during the country’s first multi-party presidential election. Determined to avoid a repeat of such coverage during the November parliamentary elections, the government blocked satellite television, clamped down on news dissemination techniques, and orchestrated the silencing of critical voices. The ruling National Democratic Party swept the voting amid widespread reports of fraud.
THE PRESS: 2010
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In October, a month before parliamentary balloting, the government-owned satellite transmission company Nilesat abruptly stopped transmitting the signals of 12 private satellite channels and issued warnings to 20 others, according to news reports. Information Minister Anas el-Fekky labeled the stations “extremist,” but Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, told Reuters that the move was designed to silence channels that supported Muslim Brotherhood candidates.
The same month, the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority imposed new rules that effectively barred private production companies from doing live broadcasts. Under the new rule, imposed just in time to block live election coverage, production companies must obtain special licenses for live broadcasts, The Associated Press reported. “I’ve had to cancel booking and broadcasting for news stations during elections,” Nader Gohar, owner of Cairo News Company, told AP. Private production companies, which supplement news coverage for both international and domestic broadcasters, were instrumental in documenting instances of police officers beating and obstructing voters during the 2005 election.
At the same time, the authority imposed new regulations that effectively blocked most news media from using mass text messaging. The new regulations required news media to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Information and the Supreme Press Council in order to use text messaging services. Independent and opposition newspapers were widely using text messaging to send news alerts to their readers. Under the new rules, only state-approved news agencies and political parties were eligible for permits, according to news reports.
Authorities also used the courts for political ends. In July, a Cairo appeals court suddenly revived a dormant 14-year-old defamation case to keep a vocal government critic in prison. Activist and former newspaper editor Magdy Hussein was seeking release in June after serving three-quarters of a two-year prison term related to his political activism. Such early releases are customarily granted. In this case, though, the Court of Cassation ordered that Hussein be retried on an unrelated 1996 complaint that he defamed a former interior minister in opinion pieces published by the now-defunct paper Al-Shaab. Hussein was fined back in 1996, but the retrial yielded a new prison term of one year. The new verdict “obviously came about to keep an influential writer and opposition figure behind bars and far away from future parliamentary and presidential elections,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
Journalists reported government harassment on Election Day. Ahmad Shokr, an editor at Al-Masry al-Youm, told CPJ that several of the daily’s journalists were briefly detained and interrogated. Other journalists, working for both print and television outlets, reported that security personnel had deleted footage from their cameras. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had been the strongest opposition bloc in parliament, was swept out of office in the voting. Analysts saw government repression during the parliamentary vote as a preview of the restrictions that will be put in place for the November 2011 presidential election.
CPJ and others saw political machinations at work in the October dismissal of Ibrahim Eissa, one of the nation’s most critical journalists, as editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Dustour. His firing came just 24 hours after Al-Dustour had been sold to an ownership group that included Al-Sayyid al-Badawi, a media mogul and leader of the opposition Al-Wafd party. “They bought the newspaper for $4 million just to stop me from writing,” Eissa told the U.S.-based magazine Foreign Policy. Al-Badawi, who had issued public assurances that the new owners would not change the paper’s editorial stance, said the dismissal was a labor dispute centering on staff salaries. But numerous analysts suggested Al-Wafd had struck a deal with the government to sack Eissa.
Eissa has faced ongoing persecution during his career, with more than 60 court cases filed against him for alleged publication violations, according to CPJ research. Eissa also lost a television show in 2010. The satellite channel ON TV pulled his political talk show in October, just a month before the election, the biggest political story of the year. No explanation was offered.
Another popular political show, hosted by Amr Adeeb on the Saudi-owned satellite network Orbit, was suddenly taken off the air in September. News reports said the move came after Adeeb criticized state media for excessively praising Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and a potential presidential successor. Adeeb told reporters he expected the program would return, but it remained off the air in late year.
Media owners come under significant government pressure, said Ahmed Bahgat, owner of the satellite channel Dream TV and a principal in the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm. In a July interview with his newspaper, he said, “If I get a phone call telling me to shut down Dream TV, I will do so. What can we do? Are we going to fight the state? We can’t.”
Legal persecution of critical journalists continued in 2010 despite presidential promises made in 2004 to end prison sentences in media and publication cases. In September, prosecutors brought criminal defamation charges against the prominent newspaper columnist Hamdi Qandil in connection with a May opinion piece critical of Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Qandil and fellow columnist Alaa al-Aswani stopped writing their columns in the independent daily Al-Shuruq in September after newspaper managers warned them about “external” pressure to tone down their content, according to CPJ interviews.
The Finance Ministry pressed criminal charges against Wael al-Abrashy, the editor-in-chief of the weekly Sawt Al-Umma, and reporter Samar al-Dawi under Article 177 of the penal code for “inciting the public to disobey the law” in connection with a campaign started by the weekly to oppose a controversial new property tax. Article 177 has been used historically to prosecute armed or militant groups. The case was pending in late year.
Blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman, known online as Karim Amer, was released from prison in November after serving a four-year term on charges of insulting Islam and the president. Amer, the first blogger in the Middle East to be imprisoned explicitly for views expressed online, was harassed and beaten by authorities throughout his time in prison, CPJ sources said.
Egypt enjoys a diverse and fast-growing blogosphere. Journalistic bloggers have been instrumental in uncovering public corruption and the torture of detainees in police custody. But bloggers who express controversial views or are openly critical of government policies are routinely harassed by security agents. The government has numerous tools at its disposal to silence critical bloggers, including the 1996 Press Law, which criminalizes the vaguely defined offense of “spreading false news,” and the penal code, which bars material deemed insulting.
Security forces continued a long-standing practice of obstructing journalists covering street protests. Officers harassed journalists working for Al-Jazeera, Dream TV, Al-Masry al-Youm, Nahdet Misr, and Al-Karama during protests in Cairo organized by the April 6 Youth Movement, according to news reports. Al-Jazeera correspondent Samir Amr told CPJ that “security officers surrounded us, seized our cameras, and ordered us to leave the scene.” Ibrahim Kamal Eldeen, a photographer for Al-Masry al-Youm, told CPJ that two officers grabbed him by the neck and pushed him violently. “I showed them my journalist credentials,” he said, “but they told me they didn’t care.”