Press freedom under pressure in Egypt

Newspapers and television stations opposing the new draft constitution made by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi are falling silent 4 – 5 December in protest over what they see as further restrictions on press freedom. Journalist Lena Odgaard talks to two independent journalists in Egypt about their post-revolution hopes for more press freedom in Egypt

By Lena Odgaard

Incidents of suspension of TV stations, arrests and assaults on journalists and confiscation of newspapers have taken place in Egypt in the last few months of 2012.

“The level of press freedom is deteriorating – there are attacks on journalists on a daily basis,” says Ahmed Esmat, 30, journalist and co-founder of two new Alexandria-based media outlets, Alex Agenda Magazine and the newspaper ‘Amwague’.

In August, Minister of Information and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, suspended the TV-channel, ‘Fareen’, and confiscated the August 11-edition of the al-Dustour newspaper due to accusations of incitement and insulting the President. Both outlets are known for being notoriously critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the military. Fareen’s controversial TV host, Tawfiq Okasha and editor-in-chief of al-Dustour, Islam Afifi, are to be tried at the Cairo Criminal Court for incitement.

International media has criticised the new regime for attempting to repress free speech, but according to young Egyptian journalists, methods used to control the media goes way beyond these controversial cases. With reference to policies from the time of Mubarak, the new regime has instated new editors of the leading media houses leading to increased censorship. Additionally incidents of assaults, intimidation and arrests based on new policies cracking down on criticism of the president or blasphemy are likely to increase the level of self censorship, assesses Esmat: “They (the authorities, ed.) don’t want to give media its freedom.”

In the aftermath of the revolution journalists were hoping to see more press freedom, but Esmat has lost his optimism.

“We expected greater space to work and greater freedom of expression,” says Esmat: “You can now see in their faces that journalists are disappointed.”

The revolution fostered public debate – and incitement

In spite of disappointment, the current situation cannot be compared to that under Mubarak. Also then, journalists faced attacks and harassment, explains Esmat, but the main difference is the significant rise in public debate sparked by the revolution. This assessment is shared by Hanan Solayman, 28, a freelance journalist and founder of the newly established, ‘Mandara’, an initiative for gathering local news in the upper region of Egypt.

“In spite of disappointment, the current situation cannot be compared to that under Mubarak – under Mubarak we were facing a lot of attacks too,” explains Esmat, who sees the revolution as having sparked public debate at an unprecedented level.

“After seeing Mubarak fall, there seems to be a belief that authorities will react to the pressure of the people. And in spite of harassment, the fear of speaking out seems to have gone with the old regime,” she says, explaining that amongst journalists this means organising protests both on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but also on the ground pushing for more freedom.

Responding to the regimes’ methods of intimidation such as arrests, beatings and confiscation of equipment, a group of journalists, including Esmat, have formed a coalition of about 40-45 journalists from different media outlets in Alexandria. Calling themselves ‘Media Makers Support Network’ or ‘DAA’M’, they ensure that word gets out if one is attacked or arrested, they facilitate lectures and trainings in what to do in case of arrests and on a more general level, fight for new press freedom laws.

According to Solayman there is a pressing need for an independent institution to monitor limitations in press freedom. But also for new and clear media policies both guaranteeing press freedom and protecting against incitement. Solayman explains that the revolution has made Egypt extra vulnerable to outbreaks of violence. The cases of incitement as in Fareen TV and al-Dostour newspaper encouraging people and the military to overthrow Morsi, could therefore have serious consequences.

“Some people misunderstood the freedom that the revolution brought along. We need responsible freedom. In any free media, as much as freedom should be there, so should accountability”.

But according to Solayman there are no movements towards such policies, which she expects will only benefit the government. Solayman fears that as people see the large degree of incitement and lies being allowed in the public media they will demand for more conservative regulations and more censorship.

Post-revolution optimism has faded

Both young, ambitious journalists who have recently launched new media initiatives, Esmat and Solayman represent the future of Egyptian media.

In the time after the revolution Solayman participated in several sessions on how to improve the Egyptian media environment.

“There were a lot of media professors and professionals to brainstorm with about what we could do, but it never happened. It was just talks in lecture halls, it never came to action, unfortunately,” says Solayman.

Pointing to lack of freedom of information laws and difficulties in attaining the needed permits for registering new media outlets – especially if having a record of being critical of the new regime – they have little confidence in a prosperous future for Egyptian media. Looking back at the post-revolution optimism, she and Esmat now have little confidence that the situation will improve.

Still, their determination to see their new media houses blossom and succeed reveal signs of hope among the ambitious young journalists.

“We have to stand as one strong body and fight for our rights,” says Esmat, “I hope that something will happen and they will stop putting obstacles in the way of newspapers and magazine to ensure more freedom.”

The interviews in this article were carried out prior to the November demonstrations.