The media clampdown in Egypt is worsening. Over the past six weeks, the ruling military council has censored the press, raided news organizations, shut down broadcasts and intimidated journalists.
“The military government has revived Mubarak-era repression,” says Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In the most recent incident, Yousri Fouda, a widely respected journalist and the host of an influential political talk show, announced he was indefinitely suspending his program on Friday due to censorship pressure. Fouda, whose show ran on ONTV—a private channel owned by Egyptian telecommunications tycoon Naguib Sawiris—had invited outspoken novelist Alaa el-Aswany and opposition journalist Ibrahim Eissa to join him on Thursday evening's program, but the episode was inexplicably cancelled.
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They had planned on discussing statements made by two members of the ruling military council on another talk show a day earlier (which Eissa himself co-hosted) in which the generals spent nearly three hours on air defending the army's actions on Oct. 9, when at least 26 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in a military crackdown on a protest made up of largely Coptic demonstrators. The incident was the bloodiest act of repression by the army since it came to power after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11. It also marked the first time the armed forces were directly implicated in the killing of protesters.
“This is my way of imposing self-censorship, it is to put the right word out or to say nothing at all,” Fouda said in a statement on his Facebook page. He did not explain why Thursday's episode was cancelled, but said there had been “a noticeable decline in the freedom of the media.”
That decline was on full display the night of Oct. 9 itself. Security forces raided the offices of 25TV, a news station established earlier this year, as they were reporting live on the violence in the streets below. The anchor could be heard screaming on air as armed soldiers smashed doors and windows and forced the station to go off the air. Security forces also stormed the offices of the U.S. government-funded TV station Al-Hurra, housed in the same building, bursting into the studio and disrupting the live broadcast. Meanwhile, the independent daily newspaper, Al-Shorouk, had its electricity, phone lines, and Internet connections severed on two occasions shortly after it posted video footage of dead and injured protesters on its website. Among the more than two dozen killed was a journalist: Wael Mikhael, a cameraman for Al-Tareeq, who was shot in the head as he filmed the clashes.
At the same time, state television was erroneously reporting that armed protesters had attacked the army first and killed three soldiers. Repeatedly using sectarian language, state TV anchors called on “honorable civilians” to come to the scene and protect the military from “the Christians.” It wasn't long before hundreds of young men brandishing sticks, rocks and Molotov cocktails descended on downtown Cairo. The Coptic Hospital, where many of the dead and wounded had been taken, came under sustained attack for several hours.
The distorted reporting continued the next day, best exemplified by the headline of the state-owned Al-Ahram which read, in part: “24 Soldiers and Demonstrators Dead”—even though there was no credible evidence of a single soldier being killed..
Five days before the Oct. 9 attack, two private satellite stations—both known for airing popular political programs that often criticize the ruling military council—had received official warnings from authorities. The General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI) accused ONTV of airing programming inconsistent with the type of license the station obtained. Meanwhile, GAFI charged Dream TV with violating the “media code of ethics” for a show during which a presenter allegedly expressed personal views.
“The statement we received accused the presenter of expressing his own point of view, but he was only playing the role of devil's advocate,” Dream TV Executive Manager Mohamed Khedr told Ahram Online. “We don't think the warning has anything to do with the general politics of the network. But the incident is very alarming.”
In early September, the military council announced it would fully enforce the Mubarak-era emergency law—which allows civilians, including journalists to be tried in state security courts—and added to it a new list of offenses, including “deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors.” Information Minister Osama Heikal also announced a decision by the military council and interim cabinet to temporarily suspend issuing licenses to private satellite channels, and take legal action against channels the council described as “incendiary.”
Days later, the Giza office of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr—an affiliate of the Al Jazeera satellite network that launched in February and was known for its live and extensive coverage of street protests in Egypt—was raided by security forces. Officials seized broadcasting equipment and arrested the station's chief engineer, detaining him overnight. Authorities claimed the station had been broadcasting without a license. A separate lawsuit had also been filed accusing the channel of “sowing dissent” and “calling for demonstrations.” Less than three weeks later, its offices were raided for a second time.
Government censorship has extended to newspapers as well. In late September, authorities stopped the publication of a Saturday edition of Sawt al-Umma, an independent weekly, because of the paper's story on Mubarak's ongoing trial. According to the Associated Press, the newspaper's editor, Abdel-Halim Qandil, said officers of the intelligence service halted the printing after the presses had begun running. Qandil said he replaced the offending article, but only after intelligence officers oversaw the destruction of some 100,000 copies.
Authorities also ordered Rose al-Youssef, a pro-regime daily during the Mubarak era, not to publish the second part of an investigative report about an alleged Israeli spy. The publisher, Al-Ahram, informed the newspaper that an amended version of the issue—one that didn't include the offending page—would appear on newsstands.
In response, four columnists withheld their regular commentaries in the independent daily Al-Tahrir on Oct. 5 in protest. The four—Belal Fadl, Omer Taher, Nagla Bedir and Tareq el-Shinawy—left their columns blank, publishing only a few words explaining their decision: “I withhold my writing today to protest the barring, impounding of newspapers and the presence there of military censorship.”
As with so much else in Egypt's transitional period, the battle for freedom of the media has a long way to go.