Hamdi Rizk was appointed editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm this week, replacing Mohamed Al-Sayed Saleh who was dismissed after running a controversial headline during last month’s presidential elections.
“It has been decided to end Mohamed Al-Sayed Saleh’s term as editor-in-chief as of 4 April… he will remain one of the paper’s leading writers,” said a statement issued by the board of Al-Masry Al-Youm. The statement gave no reasons for the dismissal.
Saleh and another writer on the paper were summoned for questioning by the Press Syndicate, acting on a request by the state-appointed Supreme Council for Media Regulations (SCMR), after a front-page headline was published in the paper’s 27 March first edition reading “The state mobilises voters to cast their ballots”.
The headline was changed in the second edition to “Al-Sisi sweeps election against Moussa”.
On 28 March the paper published an apology for its earlier headline of the day before in which it said the headline had intended to underline the “positive mobilisation” of voters. The apology failed to mollify the SCMR which fined Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s largest private independent daily, LE150,000 and demanded the paper apologise to the National Electoral Commission (NEC).
The fine was imposed two days after the NEC submitted an official complaint to the SCMR over the newspaper’s election coverage. The NEC said the headline insulted both it and the public since it implied state interference in the voting process.
Commenting on his dismissal on his Facebook page Saleh said he was proud of the 1,000 headlines he had helped compile during his time as editor-in-chief.
During a telephone interview with Al-Hayat TV channel Abdel-Mohsen Salama, chairman of the Press Syndicate, said one positive aspect of the case was that demonstrated cases involving the press were now being dealt with by administrative bodies such as the SCMR and the Press Syndicate rather than the courts. He added that he had also submitted a request to the SCMR for the fine to be reduced.
The dismissal of Saleh and fining of the paper have raised fears among some journalists that it heralds more restrictions on press freedom.
Hisham Kassem, founder and former CEO of Al-Masry Al-Youm, told Al-Ahram Weekly the headline to which the NEC took offence “was professional and suggested only that the state wanted to increase voter turnout”.
“Everyone knows Al-Masry Al-Youm didn’t make a mistake and its editor-in-chief is paying a price only because he acted in a professional manner,” insisted journalist and columnist Ayman Al-Sayyad.
Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) and a member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), branded the fining of Al-Masry Al-Youm “a gross violation of freedom of opinion and expression”.
Last week also saw the detention of Adel Sabri, editor-in-chief of Masr Al-Arabia, an independent news website. Security forces subsequently raided Masr Al-Arabia’s headquarters and shut it down. The Interior Ministry said in a statement Sabri had been arrested for operating a news website “without a licence”.
The moves came two days after the SCMR fined the website LE50,000 for publishing an Arabic translation of a New York Times article alleging violations during the presidential election.
Dokki prosecution ordered Sabri be detained for 15 days pending investigations into charges of being a member of a terrorist group, publishing false news and managing an unlicensed website.
Masr Al-Arabia is among a number of news websites blocked in May 2017 after accusations of publishing false news.
“What has happened to Adel Sabri is a violation of regulations which forbid pre-trial detention in publishing cases,” said Kassem.
Article 70 of the 2014 constitution guarantees “freedom of the press and of print and paper, visual, audio and electronic publications”. But Egypt’s 59-year-old emergency law, which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi invoked on 11 April 2017 allows the authorities to censor publications.
In an EOHR statement Abu Seada said the government should reconsider its decision to shut down the website since it “violates the right to freedom of expression and opinion”.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly