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An uncertain future faces free speech in Egypt

(Index on Censorship/IFEX) - 27 December 2012 -

By Ashraf Khalil

Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's press freedom and general freedom of expression were a convoluted issue at best. In theory the media was fairly free, but it was often impossible to set up an independent newspaper or get a television broadcast licence. The government couldn't truly prevent the independent papers from printing something, but they could punish and intimidate them after the fact in multiple ways.

Well into the 21st century, it was forbidden to speak or write critically of Mubarak or his family. That taboo was eventually breached and Mubarak's final years featured a parade of direct abuse from the opposition and independent press. But other barriers held firm. Every editor in the country could expect the occasional visit from the dreaded State Security Investigations agency. And they all knew that any mention of the military or Muslim-Christian tensions had to be dealt with very carefully to avoid the wrath of the government.

Nearly two years after the revolution that ousted Mubarak from power, the media scene is still something of a mixed bag. In some ways, being a journalist in post-revolutionary Egypt is even more complicated and treacherous than it ever was under Mubarak.

A media war in the new Egypt

As 2012 came to a close, the issue of public expression was particularly relevant, as the country's main political factions seem destined to spend most of 2013 publicly screaming at each other.

Egypt's public debate has become shrill and bitter as the country has split into deeply polarised camps: Islamists versus everybody else. President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies have succeeded in forcing through a rushed and controversial constitution — a process that has burned almost all bridges with the largely secularist opposition.

This polarisation is reflected in the country's media. As Egypt has broken into warring camps, much of the media has followed suit and taken sides — leaving very little in the way of objective journalism. At times different media outlets seem to be reporting from alternate universes. One classic example of this came on 23 December, the day after a nationwide referendum on the new constitution.

Al Ahram, the venerable state-owned flagship daily paper, proclaimed in a front-page headline: “The People Sided With Democracy.” Meanwhile, from across the ideological divide, Al Masry Al Youm — the largest independent daily and Al Ahram's strongest competitor — covered the same event with the front page headline: “Wholesale Violations.”

The fall of Mubarak and the collapse of his regime's many restrictions on the media have certainly led to an explosion of new media in Egypt. Immediately after Mubarak's ousting, a wave of new newspapers and satellite television channels appeared, kicking off a raucous new era of freewheeling expression. Much of the independent media — including several major satellite channels—feature talk shows that are heavily anti-government and anti-Islamist.

We've seen the creation of new media stars such as Bassem Youssef — a heart surgeon by training who has become the Egyptian equivalent of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. Youssef started out posting videos on YouTube in the midst of the revolution and immediately drew a huge audience. He now hosts a weekly show called Al Bernamig (The Programme) that has become essential viewing across the country.

In the realm of the state-owned media, the picture is far less encouraging. Critics charge — with some merit — that Morsi and his allies haven't even tried to reform journalistic standards at state-owned newspapers and television channels; they've simply co-opted Mubarak's old media machine for their own ends. State journalists — who were accustomed to dispensing Mubarak propaganda under the old regime — have smoothly shifted to dispensing Muslim Brotherhood propaganda under the new regime. This is less of a problem at newspapers such as Al-Ahram, which faces stiff competition from independent papers and whose readership is widely believed to be dwindling fast. But the dozens of state-owned television channels continue to hold tremendous sway over a population with a high rate of illiteracy.

Free expression under attack

The government has struggled to maintain a consistent policy on this newly liberated media. Despite proclamations of a new post-Mubarak era of freedom, prosecution of journalists has continued on-and-off since the revolution — both under Morsi and under the military government that immediately followed Mubarak. Most recently, prominent television talk show host Wael al-Ibrashy was interrogated for eight hours and released on LE100,000 bail (about GBP £10,000) on charges of insulting Egypt's judiciary. And dozens of other journalists have been called in for questioning on similar grounds.

In August, firebrand anti-Islamist television host Tawfiq Okasha was arrested and the channel he owns shut down. His televised rants against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood often verged on incitement to violence and the episode that landed him in jail featured Okasha stopping just short of personally threatening the president.

Aside from the occasional journalist prosecution, there's a disturbing new trend emerging in the past few months: direct intimidation of and violence against journalists in Egypt. Hazem Abu Ismail — a charismatic ultraconservative Salafist preacher has repeatedly rallied his slightly fanatical followers (known locally as the Hazemoon) against journalists who criticise him. They recently held a noisy several day-long sit-in outside Media Production City — where many of the most popular satellite talk shows are broadcast — openly intimidating the hosts and station employees as they came to work. Even more disturbingly, Abu Ismail's followers were alleged to have recently attacked the offices of a heavily anti-Islamist opposition newspaper with petrol bombs, though the preacher took to Facebook to deny any involvement.

It's not just the Islamists who are targeting journalists they dislike. Egypt's secularist protestors are guilty of the same crime. The anti-Islamist forces absolutely despise the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel, regarding it as completely biased towards the Brotherhood. That antipathy came to a head in late November during a string of violent protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. The anti-Islamist protestors firebombed a street-level studio of Al Jazeera Live Egypt — an offshoot Al Jazeera channel devoted to 24/7 Egypt news.

Earlier this year, we learned that there are limits to just how much freedom of expression the Egyptian public is willing to stomach. An amateurish YouTube video trailer for The Innocence Of Muslims, a film that insulted the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad touched of a week of angry protests outside the US embassy in Cairo. At one point, a small group of protestors invaded the embassy grounds and took down the US flag. The rage toward the makers of the film was understandable, but the anger directed at the US government was based on a widespread misunderstanding. Many of the protestors were angry at US President Barack Obama for “allowing” the film to be made and not immediately prosecuting those behind it. The protestors here simply didn't understand or believe that blasphemy is not a crime in the United States and most of Europe.

Indeed there seems to be absolutely no sort of public appetite for that level of freedom of expression. A young and outspoken atheist activist named Alber Saber was arrested and eventually sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly promoting the offensive film on his Facebook page.

An uncertain future for free speech

The country's new constitution — which was approved in late December by a 63.8 per cent vote in a national referendum — makes it clear that blasphemy will not be considered a freedom of expression issue. Article 44 of the constitution bluntly states that:

Defaming all religious messengers and prophets is prohibited.

But the constitution is far more murky when it comes to safeguarding the rights of journalists. Morsi and his supporters have hailed the document as enshrining unprecedented press freedoms. However an examination of the text reveals some potentially dangerous built-in loopholes to that freedom.

One article on freedom of the press clearly states:

The freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media is guaranteed … The closure, prohibition or confiscation of media outlets is prohibited except with a court order.

But another article seems to open the door to a very broad interpretation of what exactly constitutes defamation and irresponsible public speech. Under the strangely-worded title of “Dignity and the prohibition against insults,” the article states:

Insulting or showing contempt toward any human being is prohibited.

Even in a healthy political environment, it's impossible to imagine a free media functioning without somebody getting insulted or shown contempt. But given the absolutely toxic state of the modern Egyptian political playing field, this constitutional paradox seems likely to be tested almost immediately.


Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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