Veteran Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa. (CPJ)
Veteran Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa. (CPJ)

Egyptian journalists pressured by military, Islamists

For a few weeks after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, it looked as if Egypt might do the unthinkable and do away with the ministry of information. New publications and TV stations sprouted up, newspaper circulation soared, and a new breed of citizen journalists and bloggers opened a space for reporting and comment that a year earlier would have led to a jail sentence.

For a growing number of independent journalists and bloggers, the memory of that press freedom euphoria is as hazy as the Cairo skyline.

The information ministry is back;  the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has started prosecuting journalists under Egypt’s vast array of anti-media freedom laws; the generals have done little to rein in security forces who have assaulted scores of journalists covering protests over the past five months; and now Islamist groups have emerged victorious from parliamentary elections between November 2011 and January this year, raising fears of more censorship to come.

In interviews with journalists, human rights defenders, and lawyers in Cairo during a visit in late February, I got the distinct impression that the real work of anchoring freedom of expression into the Egyptian political and cultural landscape was still to be done.

CPJ documented more than 50 attacks on and arrests of journalists in the last two months of 2011. That figure dropped at the start of this year, but in the two weeks before CPJ’s mission we counted at least three assaults in Cairo and more than 10 in the port of Suez on reporters covering protests. Australian freelancer Austin Mackell was detained while covering a strike called to mark the first anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster on February 11.

“Before you had an authoritarian regime, now you have an authoritarian military regime,” quips editor Ibrahim Eissa, a gadfly for Egypt’s rulers for nearly 30 years.

Eissa, 46, is editor-in-chief of al-Tahrir (Liberation), an independent daily he founded last year in the wake of the revolution. It became the poster child for the new generation of independent media with a December 18 front page that ran a picture of a woman stripped and beaten by police, alongside a bold, red headline ‘LIARS’ — a reference to SCAF’s assertion that security forces had not attacked protesters. 

The cover had shock value not only because of its open defiance of a force that has dominated political life for nearly 60 years but also because the military had been credited by many with facilitating the revolution’s success by not firing on demonstrators in January and February 2011.

Al-Tahrir is in the minority, however. Much of the mainstream media did not dare challenge SCAF. In fact, a significant portion of media is still state-owned and wields influence over many ordinary Egyptians outside the educated, urban middle class which has embraced the new satellite TV stations and the Internet.

Journalists who fall foul of SCAF (and that’s easy to do since article 184 of the penal code makes ‘insulting the military establishment’ a crime) face prosecution in a military rather than civilian court which is the correct procedure. In a new development, they also risk being branded an agent of unspecified foreign powers, often code for the United States.

“If you’re critical you’re painted as a stooge for foreign interests,” Eissa said, citing the recent case of the arrests of employees of foreign non-governmental organizations as an example of the anti-Western climate. Add to this the emergence in parliament of the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and recently established Salafist al-Nour party, which advocates a strict implementation of Islamic Sharia law in most aspects of life, and journalists are feeling threatened.

“Islamists have a narrow view of press freedom,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. “They believe that the press cannot be so free that it contravenes Sharia.”

Eissa is even more forthright.  “Now you have the thought police,” he said of the new legislators. “And the proof of that is that the first thing that was discussed in parliament was this idea that there should be a regime of pre-censorship.”

“In the Mubarak days you had the single threat of authoritarianism,” he added. “Now you have the dual threat of military authoritarianism and religious extremism. You become a traitor not only to your country but to your religious heritage.”

To be sure, some elements in parliament oppose pre-censorship, and the proposal did not result in any draft laws. It’s not yet clear which factions in parliament will muster the coalitions necessary to pass sensitive legislation.

Journalists are also constrained by a skein of obscure and often contradictory laws and professional regulations, and a concentration of media ownership among conglomerates loathe to jeopardize business interests by promoting critical and investigative journalism. That at least was the consensus among the activists, editors, and lawyers Eid had gathered at his office to meet CPJ under the banner of the National Coalition for Media Freedom. His network joined with 12 other groups last May to form the coalition which advocates for a complete overhaul of media legislation, the dismantling of restrictive professional practices, and reform of state-owned media.

The lawyers in the group reeled off a list of the usual criminal defamation and disrespect statutes that can ensnare any reporter doing his job. Then one lawyer, Taher Abu al-Nasr, added with a smile: “The criminalization of journalism is not just in the penal code but also in the press and publications law.”

“For example, the journalists syndicate law states that you cannot gain membership in the syndicate unless you have a body of journalistic work, but in a different clause in the same law it states that it is illegal,  and in fact criminal, to engage in journalism without membership in the syndicate.”

Leaving aside the more Alice-in-Wonderland provisions of the law, prosecutors can dust off any of 30 provisions in the penal code alone — plus dozens more peppered throughout other laws like the journalists syndicate law, press and publications law, criminal procedures law, and others — to silence pesky reporters.

“All these absurdities are explicitly there to protect the government from inquiry or what they see as intrusion,” said journalist Mahmoud Attia of Akhbar El-Yom. “We formed this Coalition because we all sense that freedom of expression is at a crossroads and in danger of extinction,” he said.

Yet the very existence of the coalition and of newspapers like al-Tahrir is evidence of a shift in the media landscape and a source of optimism for some journalists. Egyptians now have more and better sources of news and the technology to disseminate information and opinion.

Thanks to the Internet, the Tahrir Square protests made reporters out of citizens with mobile phones and propelled some already established journalists and bloggers to international celebrity.

“I have high hopes,” Eissa said. “The youth are very tech savvy and doing great things online. The only problem is that this universe is quite restricted and accessible largely to the top 20 percent…nevertheless that is still 20 million Egyptians with education and money.”

(Reporting from Cairo)