Egypt's President al-Sisi addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 24. He promised to guarantee freedom of press, but journalists are still imprisoned. (AFP/Jewel Samad)
Egypt's President al-Sisi addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 24. He promised to guarantee freedom of press, but journalists are still imprisoned. (AFP/Jewel Samad)

As al-Sisi promises freedom of speech, TV host Youssef is put under investigation

The Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was given a great platform for his country last week, with a speech at the United Nation’s General Assembly in which he said that his “new Egypt” would “guarantee freedom of speech,” and his first ever meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

However, when pressed by Obama, the U.S. media, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over concerns about the absence of due process for detainees and the sentencing of journalists, al-Sisi argued that he wanted to respect the independence of the Egyptian judiciary.

His contradictory responses were further illustrated by reports today that Bassem Youssef, a 2013 awardee of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Awards, is under investigation and has been banned from travel. The experiences of the satirical journalist are the latest example of the Egyptian government’s use of legal action, arbitrary detention, media vilification and other forms of censorship that have placed the country on CPJ’s most recent Risk List.

As president, al-Sisi has executive power. Since grabbing legislative control in June, and in the absence of Parliament, the former army chief has appointed allies as judicial officials. But when it comes to releasing journalists and allowing critics such as Youssef to express their views, al-Sisi claims suddenly that his hands are tied.

Youssef has been accused of insulting al-Sisi and his media allies during an altercation with members of the press who were accompanying the president on his visit to New York last week, according to news reports. Youssef, who hosted a popular satirical news program, told me in a message that he has become the victim of a media witch hunt in the past two days. The investigation against him is based on a tweet posted by Khaled Abou Bakr, a lawyer and co-host of the TV show “Al-Qahera Alyoum,” which runs on the pro-government privately owned Orbit channel. Bakr’s tweet claimed Youssef had insulted and mocked al-Sisi in public.

A “legal plaintiff complaint” has been filed to Egypt’s Prosecutor General, but Youssef mocked it on Twitter, highlighting how it called for the withdrawal of his citizenship, and for him to be both kicked out of the country and banned from travel.

It is not the first time Youssef has come under pressure from the Egyptian government and its supporters. In his satirical show “Al Bernameg” (The Program), which at one point had more than 40 million viewers, Youssef critiqued government failures to improve the economy, public services, and safety, and its efforts to suppress opinion. In 2012, the Morsi-led government pursued criminal charges against Youssef for the very same accusation of “insulting the president.”

An arrest warrant for Youssef was issued in March 2013, and he had to report to the prosecutor general for a six-hour investigation. However, to his credit, Morsi withdrew the complaint in April 2013, “out of respect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.” It remains to be seen if we can expect the same outcome from al-Sisi.

The prospects are pretty grim. When Youssef first criticized those investigating the then Egyptian Defense Minister al-Sisi, after Morsi was ousted in July 2013, his show was taken off the air multiple times. He eventually had to announce its end in June after pressure and harassment in the lead up to al-Sisi taking office in August– something he didn’t have to do under Morsi. Lacking a platform, Youssef and many other independent voices, have been forced into silence.

Since Morsi was ousted by the military in July, dozens of reporters have been detained. According to CPJ research 11 journalists were still behind bars in mid-September.

However, the ball is still in al-Sisi’s court. If he and his government are in any way serious about the “new Egypt” that al-Sisi boasted of in front of the U.N. last week, they could immediately withdraw charges against Youssef; they could release journalists who are being held without charge for extended periods of time, such as freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid; they could expedite the appeal of the Al-Jazeera journalists who have been waiting for a hearing since June; and they could give amnesty to indicted journalists including Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice News Gate website.

But most importantly, the Egyptian government could amend the penal code to ensure journalists are not prosecuted for doing their job in the first place, and to prevent members of the press being detained arbitrarily. This will be the ultimate test, and one that Morsi and al-Sisi have failed in so far.