Several Egyptian writers and journalists published blank columns on Wednesday in protest against what they described as the interference of “the military censor” in the country’s newspapers.
A host of the independent Tahrir daily writers, including widely read Belal Fadl, Naglaa Bedir and Tarek El-Shenawy, all with a record of critisising Egypt's ruling military council, left a uniform note on their empty columns reading “I did not write today in protest against censorship, confiscation of newspapers and the presence of military censors on papers.”
Fadl commented to Ahram Online on the campaign: “This is not a bold decision, but a natural one. Irrespective of the reservations they had on whatever was published, the way they dealt with the situation was wrong and requires unification.
“The decisions made against papers were surely more damaging to the citizen than the articles that caused the problems in the first place. I am not calling for full press immunity, but censorship and locking up journalists cannot be the solution.”
Columnists Abdel Rahman Youssef, Akram El-Kasas, Saied El-Shahat and Alaa El-Shafei at the daily El-Youm El-Sabee followed suit and left their opinion pieces empty.
More writers wanted to take part in the blank columns campaign but were prevented from doing so by their respective newspaper editors.
Liberal writer and political activist Amr Hamzawy said papers such as Shorouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm refused to run protest blank columns, because of “depressing” editorial decisions.
“I wanted to leave my column blank today but I couldn’t, so, instead, I am writing an opinion piece under the name of ‘Whitening the Column’ [on Shorouk ] about the campaign,” Hamzawy told Ahram Online.
Writers started the blank columns campaign after government officials seized and destroyed editions of Sout Al-Umma and Al-Fagr newspapers, raided the office of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr twice in less than one month and sent official warnings to Egyptian satellite channels ONTV and Dream TV over the content of political programs.
Critics believe that the government is planning a broader media clampdown ahead of parliamentary polls scheduled for next month, similar to ousted dictator Mubarak's turn against journalists in the months before the 2010 parliamentary elections.
Reports from journalists indicated that “military censors” are physically operating at Ahram’s printing house on El-Galaa street in downtown Cairo, where all papers are published, checking and reviewing content and crossing out in red pens what they do not approve of.
However, Abdel Azim Hamad, the editor-in-chief of the daily Ahram paper, vehemently denied the allegation.
He said to Ahram Online: “There is no such thing as a military censor. There is only Law 100 that bans publishing anything about intelligence services without it first being cleared by the concerned intelligence service.”
To ensure compliance, print shop supervisors are required to survey the publications for such items, and are obliged to raise the alarm in the event of their presence, said Hamad. Failing to do so, he said, they would be held responsible for violating the law.
So extreme are the intelligence services in enforcing this, Hamad explained, as he recalled having to remove an obituary notice from Al-Ahram that mentioned that the deceased was the brother in law of the former deputy head of General Intelligence.
Some journalists staged a vigil in front of the Journalists’ Syndicate Wednesday at noon against the alleged military censorship.