“No one will touch media freedoms. There will be no pens broken, no opinions prevented, no channels or newspapers shut down in my era.”
This confident claim was uttered by Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi soon after his election, and at the time was met with doubt, as no action had yet been taken to prove its credibility. Today it is a representation of one of the most glaring mistruths perpetrated by Morsi towards the people of Egypt.
Freedom of expression and speech are among the most basic and necessary of political human rights. They are enshrined in myriad constitutions, and in articles 19 of both the United National Declaration for Human Rights and the United Nations` International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Following from them are the rights of a free and independent media and press, but unfortunately, they are both under serious threat during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. Free media and the press are hallmarks of a democratic system of governance, but recent events in Egypt suggest they are far from being protected under Islamist rule. A crackdown on the popular press and top television shows as well as presenters has resulted in a severe backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood. It also launched a new cause for Egyptians to demonstrate for, alongside their essential demands for an impartial Constituent Assembly, a fair constitution, the Brotherhood`s rule and use of violence, and Morsi’s presidency in general.
Egypt has a mixture of state-run publications and private newspapers. Egypt’s upper house of Parliament, the Shura Council (which holds an eighty-three percent Islamist majority), recently took it upon itself to replace the chief editors of each of the fifty state-owned publications, which include the most-widely distributed newspaper in Egypt, Al-Ahram, as well as several other widely-read ones, including Al-Akhbar, Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, and Al-Gomhoreya. The paradigm of having politicians, all of the same political background, select the journalists that shall be reporting on their actions is a slap in the face to any notion of a free press and journalistic integrity. The Shura Council also created a Supreme Council for the Press, meant to oversee and regulate the industry; unsurprisingly, it is composed almost entirely of Islamists.
These violations of the principle of the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech in general are not surprising. When a news agency is state-affiliated, it is not unusual for it to be biased towards the state. However, it is the blatant manner in which journalistic integrity has been sacrificed in exchange for perpetuating Mubarak’s propaganda machines in the Morsi-era that has enraged Egypt’s opposition. The Shura Council have not even selected those purely loyal to their party. Any journalist who has a history of obedience is acceptable, as proven with the appointment of Abdel Nasser Salama, who steadfastly backed Mubarak during the Revolution and is now a Brotherhood apologist, as editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram.
For those in the press who operate independently of the state-run newspapers, censorship has taken the form of harassment and criminal charges. The archaic crime of "insulting the President" was most famously used by Mubarak in 2007 against four of the most popular opposition newspaper editors. Unfortunately, it is a crime that is being utilised with great vigour under President Morsi. In October, Tawfik Okasha, an outspoken talk show host and long-time opposition figure was sentenced to four months jail time for this crime. The proceedings against him showed the extent to which freedom of speech would be violated in order to protect the presidency from criticism; it was claimed: "Morsi is the President of all Egyptians and insulting him is like insulting the whole nation." Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of independent newspaper Al-Dostor, also faced charges of the same crime. On Tuesday 11 December, in conjunction with massive protests nationwide opposing the constitution, a variety of newspapers refused to print their daily editions, in protest against the continuous violations of their freedoms of speech and expression.
While Egypt’s press censorship is lamentable, the very obvious campaign to harass and discredit its independent television media could arguably be more disastrous for freedom of speech. Egypt’s talk-shows are a hot-bed for support for the opposition, serving as both nightly mouthpieces against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a platform for chief opposition personalities to promote their political positions.
In November, the privately-owned Dream television channels, which had several anti-Islamist shows, were shut down for a week due to unclear licensing problems. More recently, popular and widely-watched nighttime TV presenter Amr Adeeb was forced to take a break from his show, following a particularly critical program in which he called Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood “failures.” Starting in December, the frequency and level of government interference with the media and its figures has increased. Another well-known host, Mahmoud Saad, was questioned by police for three hours for the now oft-used charge of "insulting the President" while presenting his program. Khairy Ramadan, presenter of popular show "Momken," announced his resignation on air for not being allowed to interview that night’s guest, the Nasserist former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. It later became apparent that government interference forced the television channel’s administration to deny Sabbahi the chance to appear on air.
The tactic of harassing top television personalities, especially using the ‘insulting the presidency’ charge, has become commonplace. It is meant to serve as a warning against others as much as it is meant to damage the reputation of the specific individual charged. The strategy has largely backfired however, because the media has become more aggressive in attempts to secure their independence and defy the crackdown, and because it has enraged protestors who witness the freedom of speech being violated on a weekly basis.
The list of infringements on the freedom of the press and of the media is long and, unfortunately, growing longer. These are the tell-tale signs of an autocratic government intent on controlling its country’s media, much like Hosni Mubarak was successful in doing. Morsi’s supporters have been camped outside the Media Production City, home of the largest independent television studios, in attempts to strike fear in the hearts of presenters inside and in the visiting guests outside. The hard-line Islamist leader of the sit-in, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, had no problems pointing out exactly what drove his demonstrations; on his Facebook page, he claimed: “the media has become biased against Islamists.” It is a simple but striking sentiment, because it shows that any form of criticism-- insulting, degrading, or otherwise-- is not acceptable.
The sheer number of supporters, known as "Hazemoun," following the name of their leader, and their claims that the media must be "cleansed" has resulted in greater police protection being called to protect the studios. Several members of staff have reportedly been assaulted, while searches of employees are being conducted by the group. Morsi greatly benefits from this indirect pressure against his opponents. While "Hazemoun" are more closely related to the Salafis (the hard-line Islamist faction) than the Brotherhood, their support for political Islam and their calls for violence and intimidation towards the independent liberal media help create an anti-opposition sentiment, particularly among those who do not have access to the satellite subscriptions through which the programs are broadcast. Furthermore, groups like the "Hazemoun" and the Brotherhood’s militia use threats and violence against protestors and journalists alike.
Photojournalist Al-Husseini Abu Deif is the most prominent example of this violence; he died of a birdshot wound sustained on 5 December when Morsi’s supporters attacked demonstrators camped outside the Presidential Palace. The "Hazemoun" and others are not coy about their intentions to instil fear; it was publicly admitted by "Hazemoun" coordinator Gamal Saber that a long-standing threat to "storm" the Media Production City was meant to “scare the corrupt media personnel after they directed their corrupt pens against President Mohamed Morsi and Islamists.” While any accusation that these groups operate for the benefit of Morsi and the Brotherhood are vehemently denied, the Islamist satellite channels alighned with them are quick to accuse opposition television presenters of sedition and libel, and in some bizarre cases, even paganism. These accusations are almost always entirely unfounded, and yet these programs are going completely unchecked.
The more troubling aspect when it comes to Islamist media relations is their range. The state-owned news agencies are now Brotherhood-oriented, and as they require no satellite subscription, they are the main news sources for the Egyptian masses. This largely ensures the Brotherhood`s propaganda machine in available to every home in the country, an invaluable asset for Morsi, especially in the run-up to the referendum. It is clear that the freedom of speech that President Morsi speaks about is not protected for all citizens, but only those who conform to an Islamist ideology particularly on state media.
The Draft Constitution itself has not safeguarded the freedoms that the President has vowed to uphold. While Article 45 does set out protections for the freedom of opinion and expressing those opinions, Article 48, the chief press freedoms provision, allows for “the closure or confiscation of media outlets” provided that a court order is obtained. Also, censorship may be permitted “in times of war and public mobilisation.” Article 215 stipulates that the National Media Council, while safeguarding the freedom of the media, shall “establish controls and regulations ensuring the commitment of media to adhere to professional and ethical standards, […] and to observe the values and constructive traditions of society,” leaving the door open for any form of censorship of material not conforming to an Islamist interpretation of ‘values and traditions.’
Following the release of the draft to the public, newspapers went on a one-day strike to protest, among other things, the fact that there is no article prohibiting the arrest of journalists, something that has been a problem in Egypt time and time again. There is also great ambiguity due to the fact that no mention is made of slander, libel, or defamation, while “insulting” human beings and religious messengers is prohibited. How these concerns will translate into reality in the future will be a determining factor in the shaping of Egypt’s democracy.
With the referendum on the Draft Constitution in full swing, protests have somewhat subsided, despite harassment still continuing unabated. The "Hazemoun" eventually "suspended" their Media Production City sit-in so that news channels can operate “without pressure” and so that the movement to say "no" can be countered. Religious propaganda has been issued in order to intimidate people to say "yes." A controversial sheikh has issued a fatwa claiming that voting "no" to the Draft Constitution and the judiciary’s opposition to the referendum are both haram (prohibited in Islam), which in turn prompted the Ministry of Endowments to issue a statement reiterating to the public that participation in the referendum is not a matter of "heaven or hell." At least 340 complaints of influencing voters were recorded in just one day ahead of the referendum, and the lack of impartial judicial supervision suggests other irregularities may not have been tallied.
As well as intimidation, violence is still present against voters, the opposition, and the press. On the first of two Saturdays of voting, there were at least nineteen different injuries sustained at polling centres, with one fatality by live ammunition. Meanwhile, "Hazemoun" and Islamist supporters first marched towards the headquarters of Hamdeen Sabahi’s opposition party, the Popular Front, before besieging the headquarters of leading opposition party Al-Wafd and attacking it with fireworks and gas canisters. The party’s newspaper, which shares its name, was also besieged, and is just another example of harassment of the press and media. Following the attack, other prominent newspapers reported also receiving threats, including Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Watan.
As the list of cancelled programs and harassed of media figures, journalists, and publications grows, it becomes more and more apparent that democracy is not the end goal of this administration. Famed Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah summed up the situation with brutal honesty: “We’ve got an organization that is not interested in democratizing the press, or freeing the press. It’s interested in taking it over.”