A Guide to Egypt's Challenges: Freedom of Speech, Media & the Arts

Bassem Sabry , Thursday 16 Aug 2012

Bassem Sabry provides a multi-pronged overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, with an emphasis on the everyday problems facing average Egyptians

Egyptian dailies mushroomed after revolution (Photo: Mohamed Nada)

One of the key issues in post-revolutionary Egypt, the debate over the freedoms of media, speech and especially the creative arts gained further urgency after the conviction of Adel Iman, one of the country's most famous film actors, on charges of insulting religion in his decades-long body of work.

The court's legal justification and its initial sentence of three months in prison sparked vociferous criticism by legal experts as well as political commentators and rights and artists' groups. All of Iman's films were approved by Egypt's censorship board, which considered the religious aspects of the productions.
The sentence is currently under second appeal with a verdict due 12 September. The outcome is likely to have a profound influence on the general debate.
Another controversy erupted after an Egyptian court, an Islamist MP and a parliamentary committee all made separate calls to block local access to pornographic websites. 
Such proposals raised concerns in some quarters about the state's right to censor all materials available on the internet.
It was described by some political commentators as the thin end of the wedge, whereby the blocking of supposedly objectionable content would eventually spread to the political and creative spheres, stifling debate and dissent. The example of Iran is often touted.
Egypt's liberals, literary and artistic figures have said now is the time to break many traditional taboos, end the country's long-standing censorship board, and bring down the barriers to all freedom of expression . 
Islamist groups, particularly the FJP -- who currently dominate the political scene and are generally socially conservative -- are faced with a conundrum. They appear to be searching for a delicate, and perhaps sui generis policy, to solve the dispute.
On one hand, they wish to avoid going down in history - locally and in world opinion -- as having cracked down on liberties and free expression, and paralleling too closely the example of Iran.
On the other, their stance has to address a significant portion of their political base as well as a general population that is mainly conservative.
Former presidential contender Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for instance, made the proposal of abolishing the censorship board then bringing together artists, politicians and legislators to create a new law and system to both encourage the creative process and somehow respect conservative conerns. The keyword in that proposal, however, is "somehow".
The recent temporary suspension of the Al-Faraeen TV channel, and the court-ordered confiscation of new issues of the daily Al-Dostour, the latter subject of investigation for inciting sectarian violence and insulting the head of state, have also created a storm of controversy.

While both media outlets were substantially criticised for their content, and accused of fabrication and propaganda against figures associated with the revolution and - most staunchly - the Muslim Brotherhood, some commentators worry that the moves were rather politically motivated, and that the manner with which the decisions were taken might pose a threat to the freedom of the media.

Resurfacing in the aftermath was a near-unanimous conviction on the need for a genuine overhaul of laws governing news media, especially with regards to what constitutes a violation and how these violations should be addressed; and how to safeguard freedom of speech while responding to unprofessional conduct by news outlets.

Most recently, censorship authorities banned a Middle East History textbook from entry the country. The book was already in use for nearly ten years by the American University in Cairo according to the University's Chair of History Khaled Fahmy, reported Ahram Online. As of yet, there has been no official explanation for the sudden ban of the book, nor have those in possession of the book been able to locate a particularly controversial section within it.

The inexplicable ban of the book also further raises questions on the future of the outdated practice of censorship of print media, especially in the age of open access to infinite controversial content online, with already a significant percentage of the country having one form of connection to the internet or another.

See also:

The Economy

Subsidies & the Budget

Food Security

Fuel & Electricity Shortages


Slums & Random Housing

Religious Freedoms, Minorities

Judiciary & Education

The Interior Ministry


Women's Rights, Street Children

The Public Sector & Privatisation



Saving Cairo!

Healthcare & Hepatitis

National Reconciliation
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