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Media freedom faces wide-ranging challenges in Egypt's transitional period

Old practices of censorship and state control of media, now joined by public intolerance for criticism of transitional authorities, present a formidable challenge to media independence in Egypt

Sherif Tarek , Friday 1 Nov 2013
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Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef during his episode on 25 October, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Youssef's official Facebook page)

The recent scathing criticism of political satirist Bassem Youssef by supporters of the interim government has further substantiated the challenges facing media freedom in Egypt in the transitional period.

Youssef, the famous surgeon-turned-comedian whose style of news satire show has been compared to American comedian Jon Stewart, resumed his popular programme last Friday after a three-month hiatus.

The first episode of Youssef's news commentary show El-Bernameg (The Programme) poked fun at an uncontroversial target: former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and his group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since Morsi's ouster by the military in July, after mass protests against him, almost all local media outlets have supported the transitional authorities.

However, Youssef also broke with much of the Egyptian media by mocking the zealous supporters of army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, and openly voicing displeasure with some of the interim authorities' policies.

"For sure I will not take the side of the people [Islamists] who declared us apostates…and publicly called for our shutdown and imprisonment [for mocking Morsi while in power]," said Youssef during last week's programme.

"At the same time, I'm not with hypocrisy, deification and pharaoh-making," he added.

El-Sisi, as head of the army, has become extremely popular since he announced the end of Morsi's rule and the installation of an interim president in Judge Adly Mansour on 3 July.

El-Sisi has been commonly portrayed in the media as a national hero for his actions. The media have also supported the security forces on their campaign against terrorism in Sinai, where militant attacks have increased since Morsi's ouster.

Less praiseful, however, were Youssef's comments on the security approach sponsored by the interim authorities, who have launched a crackdown against pro-Morsi protesters leading to hundreds of deaths.

"It is difficult to ignore the number of people who are treated unjustly, whether by being detained or killed, just because they are in the wrong place, or because of rumours or suspicion," he stated at the end of the episode.

A host of legal complaints filed by military supporters against Youssef immediately after the resumption of his show were not therefore unexpected. The programme was also criticised on social media and television talk shows by many unhappy with the level of criticism directed at those in power.

Even El-Bernameg's home network, private satellite network CBC, has expressed disapproval of Youssef's show, condemning the mockery of the "symbols of the Egyptian state."

Similar terms of disapproval were often used by presenters and guests at Islamist channels – now off air – during Morsi's rule, when Youssef's weekly show would focus much of its sarcastic ire on the president's mistakes.

As a result, Youssef faced legal complaints, and the prosecutor-general ordered his arrest in March. He was released on bail after questioning and the show continued, with widespread support from anti-Brotherhood political groups, much of the media, and a vast fan-base.

This time around, the Egyptian media's support for those in power is much more homogenous, and El-Sisi and the army have built up massive public support. In this environment, El-Bernameg has faced a harsher wave of attacks than in the past, and its future may be threatened.

On Wednesday, dozens of pro-army demonstrators rallied at the Radio Theatre in downtown Cairo where the show was being filmed to protest what they regard as slander of El-Sisi in the previous episode. The show's organisers contacted the interior ministry to request additional security forces to secure the building.

More heat is bound to be directed at Youssef should he dare to speak out in any way against El-Sisi in forthcoming episodes. The general's supporters argue that public criticism of the military or its leader jeopardises national security at a time of national unrest.

'War on terrorism,' and media independence

But would restraining opposition voices help the state end terror attacks and overcome a period of turmoil and daily protests?

Ragai El-Mirghani, general coordinator of the National Coalition for Media Freedom, believes that the answer is no.

"Ending terrorism actually requires freedom of expression and transparency, and not just a blunt security face-off," he said during a roundtable discussion at the Journalists' Syndicate on Sunday.

"The security solution could exterminate a generation of terrorists, but not their ideologies."

"The remedy for this challenge is more democracy and freedom…Everyone should learn from previous experiences; giving up your freedom to achieve other gains, including security, was never the solution."

For three decades under toppled president Hosni Mubarak, authorities imposed tight restrictions on media freedoms. A number of reporters were given prison sentences for "publishing" crimes.

The three years since the 2011 revolution which toppled Mubarak have witnessed relatively greater freedom for the media.

But since Morsi's ouster, a number of Islamist channels have been taken off air for "inciting violence," and the rise in hyper-nationalistic sentiments raise doubts over the level of the freedom of expression in Egypt.

Wael Gamal, a veteran journalist for private daily Al-Shorouk, is not optimistic in this regard.

"Stressing journalism's role in combatting terrorism and saying that it could jeopardise national security contradicts with media independence," he said, speaking at the discussion on Sunday.

"Also, there should be clear criteria that determine the 'inciting violence' crimes and the subsequent punishment. The Brotherhood bore the brunt of these charges without clear measures."

Media, constitution, monopoly

Egyptian journalist Khaled El-Balshi, also speaking at the roundtable, said he believes that long battles must be fought in order to achieve media independence without oppression in Egypt, and stressed that the new constitution must first pave the way for such a feat to be fulfilled.

The committee of 50, which is currently amending the 2012 constitution seems to be responding to journalists' demands for greater media freedom. On Thursday, the body upheld draft constitutional articles that prevent the imprisonment of journalists for publishing crimes, and banning the censorship of state media in Egypt.

Committee spokesperson Mohamed Salmawy has said that this will be the first Egyptian constitution to clearly address the independence of official media. One proposed article expresses a commitment to an independent state-owned media free of bias and control by the government.

The constitution, when finalised, will be passed to the president for approval and then subjected to a national referendum.

Amr El-Shobaky, a member of the committee and a prominent political analyst, also said at the discussion on Sunday that the committee is discussing forming a High Council for Media Organisation, which will be tasked with guaranteeing media independence and freedoms.

"We need an independent institution to achieve that purpose," he said. "It's still debatable how the independence of this council would be ensured, and how it will be elected…We have got used to restrictions over the past 30 years."

"Also, in all democratic countries there are no newspapers that are owned and run by the state, so we need a new framework for the Egyptian governmental news organisations to be run," he added.

State-run newspapers in Egypt have long been perceived as the mouthpieces of those in authority.

"Each editor would design an editorial policy in accordance to the picture [of the president] hung on the wall behind him," Wael Gamal said. "And they are appointed by the state not pursuant to their competence, but to their relationship with the regime," he added.

There are many other challenges beyond the constitution that have to be tackled in order to genuinely end state control over media, Gamal said.

The main pillars of journalism as an industry in Egypt are completely controlled by the state, which means press independence is limited even in private publications, and the lack of variety of ownership makes media outlets more susceptible to state control, he explained.

"There is a [recently circulating] video showing a military officer telling El-Sisi that around 25 people [businessmen] are in control of the media, and suggesting that they communicate with them to have an understanding over their policies," he said.

"Unfortunately, this is actually how it works… So we definitely need a varied larger ownership base. Print and distribution are monopolised by the state, which gives authorities a leverage to prevent certain papers from going to stands, or even to halt publication."

"Moreover, there are also around two or three advertising agencies in Egypt and they impose certain limits to papers, for example by saying that certain type of content won't be marketable," Gamal added.

"All those involved in journalism need to sort these things out through cooperative planning… In Bulgaria, it took them eight to nine years to find a way to deal with such problems and make a difference."

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