I recently spoke at the World Summit on Information Systems + 10 (WSIS+10) in Paris. My kind invitation from UNESCO was to speak on a panel on 'Promoting Freedom of Expression and Media Development in the Arab States', and naturally most of my remarks were focused on Egypt. Among other things, I spoke of the symbiotic relationship that has emerged in Egypt between social media and traditional media, and made it clear that political will is a pre-requisite to transforming state broadcasters into public service broadcasters. Such political will is at the time non-existent.
When the floor was open for discussion, an enthusiastic young man in the front row, whose body language was clearly protesting my remarks all along, raised his hand emphatically asking to speak. He identified himself as a member of the Egypt delegation to UNESCO, and informed the moderator that in order for the session to be interactive, he would not stick to the request to keep comments from the floor “brief.”
He started his “talk” by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to criticise his own government in such an “informal” setting, and proceeded to give a full account of how we in Egypt now live in times of “unprecedented freedom” under President Mohamed Morsi. His explanation for this was that there is an unprecedented amount of criticism of the Egyptian president, the government, and the whole regime on television, in newspapers, and in the social media. He went on to blame the Egyptian media for the distorted picture in people’s minds about what is going on in the country, and wished that one day our Egyptian media would be as professional as Fox News. (I think this was when he completely lost the audience).
I could not let the gentleman’s remarks go by unanswered. What is happening in Egypt is not unprecedented freedom of expression. As a matter of fact, I believe we are at a time of unprecedented lack of freedom of expression. What is happening in Egypt is that people everywhere and at every level are defying authority. People refuse to be silenced anymore. They have spoken, and they will not shut up no matter what the price is.
There is a big difference, however, between freedom of expression and defying authority. The latter is what’s happening in Egypt. And we’re paying for it in blood. Freedom of expression occurs when anyone can criticise the president, the government, the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood, or whatever other entity, knowing for a fact that the constitution guarantees his/her freedom of expression, and that therefore this person will be free of any legal (or physical) attacks befalling him/her.
This is the absolute opposite of what is happening in Egypt. A small look at what’s been happening outside the Media Production City since Sunday night is a clear case in point. Some Islamists have basically held the City under siege, attacking and intimidating journalists, media personnel, and guests alike. They have not had the least bit of success in silencing or intimidating anyone. Journalists, media personnel, bloggers, citizen journalists, Facebook users, tweeps, and activists of every kind do say what they want to say every day, but they do so knowing that they may very well end up being beaten, injured, detained, tortured, or shot dead.
Let me remind you of just a few more recent illustrations of my point. In December, journalist Al Husseini Abou Deif was shot dead outside the presidential palace. Last week, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information reported that seven journalists and photo-journalists were attacked and beaten outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam on 16 March. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression issued a statement denouncing the beating, torture, illegal detention, and breaking cameras of 20 journalists and photo journalists in one week.
On the legal front, an unprecedented number of law suits have been filed against journalists and bloggers for “insulting the president.” As a matter of fact, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information reported that 24 such cases have been filed in 200 days compared to 23 cases in the previous 126 years. In December, 12 newspapers and five television stations went on strike for one day to protest against repressing freedom of expression.
There is a price to pay for expressing yourself in Egypt. A very high price. But we are all willing to pay it. We have been paying it for a number of years, and we continue to do so today at an increasingly high price. It’s called defying authority, and it’s one of the landmark characteristics of the Egyptian revolution. The revolution continues. The people will not be silenced.
The writer is Associate Professor and former Chair Journalism and Mass Communication at the AUC