Egyptian media stays silent as military trials and detentions continue

Ekram Ibrahim , Wednesday 1 Jun 2011

An estimated 7,000 Egyptians remain in military prisons and military trials are still being conducted for average citizens, but the media is afraid to criticise the armed forces

Tahrir Square
An Egyptian protester carries a banner with drawings depicting ex president Mubarak and reads in Arabic " No forgiveness, our children's blood is not cheap." during a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Two major issues have exploded onto centre stage recently in world media, despite the grand majority of Egypt's local media's suppression and unwillingness (or intimidation) to speak out against Egypt’s ruling military.

CNN put the virginity tests conducted by the military on females during protests in Tahrir Square on 9 March in full, international spotlight by airing their report on 31 May, two months after the incident took place.

Military trials started in Egypt the day former president Hosni Mubarak sent the army to the streets at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution on 28 January; nevertheless, it was rarely touched on by local, Egyptian media.

The interrogation of the active blogger, Hossam el-Hamalawy and the TV presenter Reem Maged after criticising the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on her TV talk show on OnTV this week was blasted across the world and, likewise, blew open the gate on the subject of military bullying.

While Ahram Online was the first to write on the military trials, torture and virginity tests, and others also spoke on the subjects, such as the local talk show, Akher Kalam (Last Word) and a spattering of online English-language news sources - the recent international coverage of some of the major incidents isn’t enough, activists bemoan to Ahram Online.

“The mainstream media never cover any violation of human rights committed by the SCAF; we [citizens] have to catch up through new media,” Gamal Fahmy, a prominent writer, told Ahram Online.

Rights activists complain that the media is silent about this issue. “I send press releases to the local media (both government-owned and independent), yet nothing is being published,” Heba Morayef, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, complained to Ahram Online.

Other activists see the issue from a different angle. “The media kept silent about torture but it began covering our press conferences as other political forces supported our movement,” Mona Seif, an activist with the No Military Trials group, told Ahram Online.

Recently some local media covered the press conferences organised by No Military Trials group with other political and rights groups, but no in-depth pieces on the issue appeared. “The local media has not touched on the issue of military trials yet; only sometimes on new media,” Seif told Ahram Online.

In an attempt to overcome the lack of media coverage and to increase the tone against the military trails, Egyptian bloggers have set 1 June as a blogging day against military trials. Last week Egyptian bloggers organised a blogging day against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Around 375 blog posts were written on that day criticising the ruling military council.

While the media is silent, the issue of military trials became one of the major demands for those who have been protesting in Tahrir Square. Several political forces are also putting the issue in their demands. Among them is the Youth Revolution Coalition, who froze their dialogue with SCAF until they release all protesters held in military prisons and stop military trials for civilians. “There is a trend to make the military trials the norm and the civil ones the exception and this is what scares us the most,” Seif told Ahram Online.

Furthermore, many Egyptians object to the prosecution of corrupt figures of the old regime in civil trials, while protesters and civilians are facing military ones.

Meanwhile, the unprofessionalism of many of the Egyptian media sources makes people wonder whether it is SCAF who put those red lines (censorship), or whether it came from the media sources themselves. “I think the media sources that used to work according to the ousted president's agenda have replaced the president with SCAF and, accordingly, SCAF considered it their right,” Fahmy told Ahram Online.

Currently there are around 6,000 to 7,000 Egyptians known by right activists to be in military prisons, according to Morayef. During the Egyptian Revolution hundreds of activists disappeared; some were collected by the armed forces and subjected to military trials.

SCAF has released the majority of the political detainees arrested on the two most popular days known for arresting protesters, 9 March from Tahrir Square and 15 May at the Israeli Embassy. “I suspect that not all protesters arrested on 9 March have been released, according to the witnesses of released ones,” Saif told Ahram Online.

Meanwhile, five protesters arrested between 28 January and March have yet to be released. “Absolutely there are more, especially before 11 February - people were disappearing during the revolution,” Morayef adds.

Morayef and other rights activists insist that these statistics are only the ones they know about and are working on, but they suspect there are more they still know nothing about.

Recently, several activists and media figures were investigated after speaking their mind. They were subjected to nothing more than a couple of questions and then they were allowed to leave, but this led to anger and fear amongst other people in the field. “By this, the military is sending a message; clear red lines on freedom of expression when it comes to SCAF,” said Morayef.

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