On the second anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 revolution, Hosni Mubarak’s footprints are still present in many areas of the public sphere–and media are no exception. President Mohamed Morsi needs to cease using Mubarak-era tactics of silencing his critics with criminal charges such as defamation.
Egypt’s media have seen some progress over the last two years. Even as post-Mubarak governments–whether run by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) or the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs–continued to exercise control over state media and instigate physical and legal attacks on journalists, independent voices and outlets have managed to blossom. But when they looked for protections under Egypt’s new constitution, they found none; the constitution did nothing to curb the criminal prosecution of journalists.
So it was only a matter of time before Morsi launched a series of investigations against his critics, including prominent editors, TV hosts, and journalists, charging several with defamation at the end of last year. This charge is taken straight from Mubarak’s textbook. He famously used it to crackdown on journalists who published information about his perceived illness. One of those journalists, Ibrahim Eissa, was sentenced to two months in jail for “publishing false information” in 2008. Last week, the same journalist was summoned by the Egyptian Prosecutor General for investigation for charges of “insulting Islam.”
Eissa is a veteran and one of Egypt’s most prominent journalists. But he is not alone. Many others journalists are championing the cause of greater press freedom and struggling to keep alive one of the few tangible gains of the Egyptian revolution: breaking the fear barrier. This includes Bassem Youssef, who like Eissa is being dragged to court to answer ridiculous charges like “insulting the president.” The New York Times has called Youssef the hero of Egyptian liberals, because he championed criticism of the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi. The paper compared him with American comedian Jon Stewart.
But while Jon Stewart enjoys the free media environment of the U.S., Youssef is consciously taking risks in negotiating the red lines that govern Egypt’s media. Started from his living room in 2011, his show criticized the institutionalized control of the government over editorial content by showcasing its hypocrisy. At last year’s first anniversary of the revolution, he worked with pop team Cairokee to produce their song “Ethbat Makanak” (Stand by your position) to support independent voices in the media who were attacked by the former military government because of their work. His entrepreneurial spirit made him a “runaway success” and his show a top advertising draw, in less than two years, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
But Eissa and Youssef need our help to prevail. More pressure needs to be put on Morsi to recognize their right to express themselves without fear. Morsi has voiced commitment to free speech even while justifying criminal charges against these courageous journalists and media outlets. In his own dialogue, initiated with the opposition following passage of the constitutional referendum, defamation was singled out as a top demand for amendment. Indeed, if Morsi is remotely true to his association with Egypt’s revolution, to its demands of freedom and of dismantling Mubarak’s rule, he should amend criminal code to exclude defamation. Then, and only then, can the revolution be on the right track.