On the Divide: Press Freedom at Risk in Egypt

1. Morsi’s Failures

By Sherif Mansour

In June 2012, three days before Mohamed Morsi was declared winner of the presidential election, Bassem Youssef, satirist and host of Egypt’s “Al-Bernameg,” defended the Muslim Brotherhood candidate during an appearance on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” He asked the U.S. audience to give democracy in Egypt a chance. So long as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood remained accountable to the people and respected human rights, Youssef reasoned, there was no reason they could not lead Egypt’s historic transition to democratic rule.

Morsi and throngs of supporters in November 2012. (AP)
Morsi and throngs of supporters in November 2012. (AP)

In the year that followed, a Morsi-led government that Youssef once defended pursued criminal charges against him on broad counts of “insulting the president,” “insulting Islam,” and “reporting false news.” On his nightly television program, Youssef had used sharp humor to critique government failures to improve the economy, public services, and safety, and its efforts to suppress opinion in the name of religion. The criminal case did nothing to blunt his sarcastic edge. “I will not tone down my criticism,” Youssef told CPJ in June 2013, just days before Morsi was ousted. “Freedom of speech is not a gift, it’s a birthright.”

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Youssef’s story in many ways epitomized Morsi’s failure to tolerate diversity of views, one of the crucial missteps that led to his fall. An analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that Morsi and his supporters used politicized regulations, ignored differing views to push through a repressive new constitution, pursued a drumbeat of retaliatory criminal investigations, and employed widespread rhetorical and physical intimidation of critics. CPJ documented dozens of outright anti-press assaults, the large majority committed by Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, virtually all of which went unpunished. Those assaults included a fatal attack on reporter Al-Hosseiny Abou Deif, the circumstances of which senior government officials sought to obscure.

An early signal

One of Morsi’s earliest decisions—to retain the Mubarak-era cabinet position of Information Minister and fill the post with one of his closest allies, Salah Abdul Maqsoud—immediately alarmed journalists. The post, long used to manage the flow of information, primarily through its editorial control of state media, had been temporarily suspended during the military transition. Many had hoped Morsi would abolish the post altogether and create an independent media regulator instead.

Not only did Morsi fail to eliminate the post, he allowed the Information Minister and the Shura Council, the upper chamber of Parliament, to expand their grip on state media by appointing political allies as heads of outlets. State media journalists soon reported that critical columns and coverage were being pulled. Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, a prominent weekly columnist for Al-Akhbar and outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, was among those who lost his platform.

By the end of 2012, Morsi and his allies in the Constituent Assembly drafted and passed a controversial new constitution with little input or support from opposition and human rights groups. The intent of the charter was clear, outlining new constraints that would “ensure the media would adhere to sensible, professional, administrative, and economic standards.” CPJ and others criticized the charter for introducing new limits on free speech, for example adding the criminal charge of “insulting the prophets” and allowing authorities to shut media outlets if a judicial review found employees had failed to “respect the sanctity of the private lives of citizens and the requirements of national security.”

The Morsi government also left intact the repressive legal framework that existed under Hosni Mubarak. Nearly 70 articles in eight different laws restrict freedom of the press and freedom of expression, according to an October 2012 study by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Broad aspects of public discourse are limited by legal prohibitions against, among other things, blasphemy; anti-state propaganda; insults to public officials and states; incitement to disobedience in the army; disruption of national peace; and publication of material inimical to public taste.

Soon after Morsi took office, Muslim Brotherhood supporters unleashed a wave of criminal complaints against media critics on vague allegations of “spreading wrong information,” “disrupting peace,” “insulting the president,” and “insulting religion.” In the first nine months of the Morsi presidency, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights counted at least 600 criminal defamation cases, far outpacing the rate of such cases during Hosni Mubarak’s reign.

“Before, I was accused of insulting Mubarak,” the editor, columnist, and television commentator Ibrahim Eissa told CPJ in March. But Eissa, long a target of the Mubarak government because of his critical coverage, faced an even broader array of charges under the Morsi government, including charges of insulting religion. “It is like walking through a minefield,” he said.

Wave of intolerance

Former talk show host Dina Abdel Fattah thought she had a scoop: a powerful interview with members of a violent underground youth group, a piece she believed would deepen the public’s understanding of the unrest roiling the nation and, perhaps, win her appreciation for some difficult reporting. “Instead,” she said, “I had more than 300 legal complaints standing against me and eventually I had to leave my work.”

It was back in January when Abdel Fattah, working for Al-Tahrir television, interviewed members of Black Bloc, which had waged violent protests against Morsi. In the interview, which focused on the turn to violent protest, the group defended its tactics by arguing that it was responding to violence waged by police and the Muslim Brotherhood in Port Said and in clashes with protesters at the presidential palace the month before. 

Leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood soon convened a general session of the Shura Council to accuse Abdel Fattah of endangering national security. After a torrent of criminal complaints, the general prosecutor’s office summoned her for interrogation on allegations of inciting violence and encouraging terrorism. Abdel Fattah was released in the face of pressure from watchdog groups, but she resigned from Al-Tahrir after perceiving that she had lost the support of her employer. Al-Tahrir manager Waleed Hosni told CPJ that Abdel Fattah never explicitly sought support, but he acknowledged the station had grown uncomfortable with what he called her “partisanship”

Time and again, Morsi and his allies used highly charged rhetoric to intimidate journalists. At a public conference on women’s rights in March, Morsi claimed his critics had used “the media to incite violence,” and warned that “whoever is found involved will not escape punishment. Whoever participates in incitement is an accomplice in crime.” Essam el-Erian, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in the Shura Council, told an Al-Watan newspaper correspondent covering council sessions that he had a “surprise” for the newspaper “that would make everyone in the media know their limits,” the paper reported in March.

As in other countries hostile to the press, from Syria to China, Morsi allies waged online harassment and intimidation campaigns against critics. Amro Selim, a cartoonist who regularly criticized Morsi in the daily newspaper, Al-Shorouk, told CPJ in March that he was receiving threats against his life every day on Facebook. “There is nothing new about getting death threats; I used to get those all the time. But instead of being called unpatriotic, I was being called kafir”—an infidel—“which was more worrisome for me.”

Morsi’s supporters used physical intimidation as well. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters surrounded Media Production City, a complex housing numerous private news outlets in Cairo, three times to intimidate both journalists and the television guests trying to enter the complex. The shows of force were staged whenever Morsi wanted to push through initiatives with the least amount of criticism.  

The first siege was held in August 2012 when Morsi’s supporters demonstrated against Al-FaraeenTV, which provided coverage sympathetic to the military when Morsi fired top military and intelligence leaders. The crowd beat three journalists who worked for the station and attacked the car of Youssef al-Hosiny, a radio and television presenter who hosted a program on the private satellite broadcaster ONTV.

Similarly, in December 2012, Morsi supporters accused the media of spreading misinformation about the draft constitution. They prevented media personnel and hosts from entering the TV stations. In March 2013, Morsi’s supporters surrounded five private satellite channels—Al-Hayat, ONTV, Al-Nahar, Al-Qahira wal Nas, and CBC—and accused the outlets of inciting violence. Their menacing chants said, among other things, that journalists would be slaughtered for insulting Morsi. At least two journalists were attacked and others were prevented from entering the compound.

In all, CPJ documented at least 78 assaults against journalists from August 2012 until Morsi’s fall on July 3, 2013. Muslim Brotherhood supporters, seeking to obstruct coverage of opposition protests, were responsible for 72 of the attacks, CPJ research shows.

During the same period, CPJ documented a handful of assaults committed by opposition groups against journalists aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the most serious case, a gunman believed to be firing from among anti-government protesters shot Ibrahim al-Masry as the Al-Wady photographer was covering an April Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored demonstration against the judiciary. He spent five days hospitalized in intensive care before his condition stabilized.

Partisan news media

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood had a near-universal view that the news media were biased against Morsi’s government. “The media lost their credibility for neutral coverage, their journalistic ethics, and their professional standards,” Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, a top lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, told CPJ in a May interview. “Unlike the Mubarak era, Egypt’s Morsi has open and free press that allows constructive criticism, if journalists wanted.” (Abdel-Maksoud was arrested on July 5 on charges of “insulting the judiciary” when he sought to defend Muslim Brotherhood leaders arrested after Morsi’s ouster.)

Egypt’s media landscape has grown tremendously, although the most dramatic expansion traces to the period immediately after Mubarak’s 2011 ouster when journalists and business people seized the opportunity to enter a field that had been tightly controlled. As of March 2012, according to a UNESCO report, 567 newspapers had been registered, up from 142 in the pre-revolution period. The same report charted “important” growth in television, with 15 new channels that included CBC, a leading private station; the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Misr25; and Al-Masry, which is associated with the liberal Al-Wafd party.  

Much of the Egyptian press was sharply political under Morsi, divided roughly into pro-government and opposition camps, a CPJ analysis found. Most of the new private newspapers and TV channels and websites were sponsored by businessmen who wanted to reconcile with the post-revolutionary forces by supporting independent journalists, activists, and politicians. Most of the outlets opposed President Morsi, said he was responsible for a deterioration of economic and political conditions, and adopted an activist tone.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood accused these businessmen of being corrupt former regime men who were controlling the editorial line against Morsi to stop him from achieving the revolution’s demands. While some media executives were once aligned with Mubarak, CPJ found that many stations were in practice run by veteran journalists who injected a strong dose of commentary into the reporting.

Journalism and politics blurred to a considerable degree. A number of journalists took an overtly activist stance during Morsi’s tenure in response, they said, to his adversarial relationship with the media and their perception that the Muslim Brotherhood exerted too much control over the public space. Talk show host Reem Maged told CPJ that she had taken part in political protests on her own time, although she tried her best to draw a distinction between her journalistic duties and her personal views. “It’s really difficult,” she acknowledged, “to separate the two.”

Muslim Brotherhood leaders, while harshly critical of what they viewed as coverage biased against them, seemed unconcerned about press neutrality when it came to Muslim Brotherhood-aligned media. Muslim Brotherhood newspapers and TV channels were aggressive in defending the president and attacking his critics, portraying them as self-interested and counter-revolutionary. The outlets also used highly charged religious rhetoric to discredit other journalists, going so far as to suggest direct attacks against some.

In the week before the June 30 protests, oblivious to the extent and depth of public discontent and having already lost the military’s support, the Morsi government issued what turned out to be a series of empty threats and toothless decrees against the news media. The government said it would shut down critical satellite channels and reopen criminal investigations of journalists seen as insulting the president. It issued arrest warrants and imposed travel bans on media personnel.

Within a week, those same sorts of measures would be turned against Morsi and the media that supported him.

Sherif Mansour is coordinator of CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program. CPJ consultant Shaimaa Abu Elkhir contributed reporting from Cairo.

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