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Responsible freedom of the press

The press has a great responsibility in providing a platform for all opinions, which is how it earns the protections of the law on press freedoms

Taha Abdel Alim , Sunday 18 Mar 2012
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When I penetrated "the circle of fire" surrounding the president — as one senior official at the presidency of Hosni Mubarak put it when explaining the anger of the presidential chief of staff who declared, "We don’t want anyone to upset him," protesting my request to meet with Mubarak — I had a one-on-one meeting with Mubarak in the lounge of the presidential plane on 12 February 2004. I asked him to cancel the prison penalty for Egyptian journalists in publishing offenses and limit it to fines if they are found guilty. 

I felt it was my duty to make this request after serving for one year as head of the State Information Service, in order to change the negative view of Egypt abroad and build a positive one. After extensive discussions and arguments back and forth, Mubarak promised to carry out my request. I referred to this meeting in an article entitled, "An end to prison sentences for journalists," in Al-Ahram on 12 March 2006.

Today, in light of an onslaught on responsible freedom of the media, I find myself repeating what I said in that article: “Egyptian journalists, while rightly calling for an end to prison penalties for publishing offences agree that any invasion of privacy or slander or violation of rights and freedoms of Egyptian citizens is a crime, and any other such publishing offences by journalists or others. Accordingly, they diligently drafted a Freedom of the Press Law and assert the necessity to adhere to the Press Charter.”

One day before the fourth Conference for Egyptian Journalists on 23 February 2004, then Minister of Information Safwat Al-Sherif asked me: “What should we do?” He was referring to information he received that the conference would include chants against the former president. I responded: “Cancel the penalty of prison against journalists convicted of publishing offences.” He countered that Mubarak would never do that.

In the morning, the head of the Journalists' Syndicate announced at the conference that he received a phone call from the president to inform him of his decision to rescind the prison penalty. Although the former minister of information was surprised by the president’s announcement, he was not entirely wrong. The promise to annul prison sentences for publishing offences was not implemented, and only partially after two years. In my article, I asked: Who is responsible?

Unfortunately, after the January 25 Revolution that raised the banner of freedom, which the youth paid for with their lives, I find myself repeating that animosity towards freedom of the press, or fear of it, belongs to those who in the past wanted to undermine the Freedom of Press Law, No 93 of 1995, and later disfigured constitutional amendment 76. These are forces whose interests in monopolising power or wealth conflict with the right and freedom of Egyptians to participate in politics, along with the right to knowledge and freedom of choice.

These are forces that fear the real threats posed by the transition to democracy and are emboldened by the weakness of the forces that genuinely believe in democracy as a value and not merely as a tool that will later be sacrificed. Their justifications are press practices that violate the principles of responsible freedom, are unprofessional and not invested in enlightening the public by presenting information and perspectives that enable citizens to judge and choose.

In defending the freedom of the press, I find myself repeating what I wrote in that article: “The press is prosecuted and bound by laws that were imposed by British colonialists and enforced by palace governments against the will of the people, and by removing the majority part of Al-Wafd Party. They were also upheld by the July regime through policies of nationalising political life under the banners ‘No freedom to the enemies of the people’ and ‘No voice is louder than battle’. It was also threatened by forms of intellectual terrorism and the Inquisition under banners that falsely claim to be in the name of Islam. Those who also called for it to be nipped in the bud are the same people in the US who clamour for freedom and democracy in the greater Middle East, but are disturbed by attacks in the Egyptian press about the crimes committed by Israel and the US.”

I wrote at the time, and I repeat it now after the revolution, that the press crisis is nothing more than a facet of the crisis of democracy in Egypt. The solution is to redress the imbalance between supply and demand in the market of freedom of the press by nurturing forces that believe in the right of the great people of Egypt to exercise their rights of participation, knowledge and choice. Also, by realising that the gains of freedom of the press far outweigh shortcomings in terms of costs.

The majority of journalists believe in responsible freedom, which is a freedom that must be protected by press laws that can be passed in weeks if all parties were to prioritise national interests, both in the executive branch as well as in press circles.

In ‘Free press is a tool of national dialogue’ published in Al-Ahram on 21 October 2007, I wrote, and I am repeating after the revolution, that a key aspect of the current crisis of the Egyptian press is its failure to conduct a serious and comprehensive national dialogue, to build national consensus on issues of unanimity. Neither has it formulated alternative options on issues under dispute.

In defending the freedom of the press in word and practice, I have always believed that the key role of the press in achieving progress cannot be achieved while it competes on incitement and defamation. Instead, it should raise its message high in the realm of enlightenment and conduct social dialogue to reveal all divergent and even conflicting perspectives about pressing current issues that are the focus of public opinion, and those relating to the nation’s future. Also, the role of the press is to seriously seek the truth that is not anyone’s monopoly since this is the ultimate goal of its participation in public discourse.

I wrote, and am repeating the same after the revolution, that there is no doubt that participating in national dialogue is one of the rights of citizenship, and a duty dictated by patriotism and loyalty to the homeland. Parties to public debate should view the problems and challenges facing the nation through responsible thinking about national interests. Their priority, along with a diligent search for truth, should be to strive to find practical alternatives to resolve problems and confront challenges. The problems of the nation are unsolvable in the absence of precise definitions with objective analysis focuses on their causes.

I added, and I am repeating myself after the revolution, in order for freedom of the press to be part of the solution and not part of the problem it is responsible for presenting public opinion with relevant, documented and comprehensive information. It must also give an equal opportunity to participants in the dialogue to freely express their opinion and evolve from merely giving an overview of the problem to suggesting alternative solutions without excluding any of the partners in the homeland who are affected by the problems, are seeking solutions for them, and even those responsible for them.

The nation’s gains in freedom of expression should not be squandered in the labyrinth of incitement, criticism and insults that is not an alternative to policies and options that are naturally being debated.

Finally, in support of the legitimate demands of the youth of the revolution in confronting those who betrayed them and betrayed the revolution, I express my regrets that some of them have denounced the entire nation and the media. Instead, they should ask themselves about their role in repelling the youth who reject impractical slogans and arbitrary appeals. 

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