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One year after Mubarak: interview on press freedom with "Egypt Independent" managing editor Lina Attalah

(IPI/IFEX) - 13 February 2012 - It has been a year since the heady days of revolution that led to the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign. But a year later, journalists covering the continuing demonstrations are still being targeted in the streets, and those pushing for greater media freedom face setback after setback. The offices of private broadcasters have been raided on several occasions over the past year, often during live coverage of protests and clashes. Television programmes and news articles critical of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have been cancelled or prevented from publication - a frustrating return to prior censorship and self-censorship, in some cases by media owners wary of crossing the line in a country where "insulting" the army is a crime and where the Emergency Law makes it legal for the authorities to confiscate publications. Such restrictions have been put into practice: Army critics, including a pamphleteer and a blogger, received prison terms for exercising their right to free expression.

The physical violence against journalists, especially those with cameras, has continued unabated, most recently as the media attempted to report on widespread protests that followed a football riot earlier this month that left 74 people dead. Protestors in Suez and Cairo took to the streets to protest the perceived mishandling of the situation by security forces; journalists and others seen filming these have reportedly been targeted. Some were attacked and had their equipment broken while others were hit with birdshot used to disperse protestors, reports say.

Against this backdrop, IPI spoke with Lina Attalah, managing editor of "Egypt Independent", for her take on the progress of press freedom a year after Mubarak's resignation - what roadblocks remain and what the media must do to overcome them.

IPI: It has been about a year since Mubarak left office. When you think back, what did journalists hope for and expect from the revolution?

Attalah: There were so many things that we couldn't talk about freely before the revolution, even amidst our constant attempts to resist the structures of authority manifested by the regime of Hosni Mubarak and his party and his government. So even though there has been a lot of pushing of our liberties and it has been an ongoing thing that predated the revolution, the hope was that all these limitations will completely die out.

The issue is that you have a revolution, and you sort of exchange the authority you had with another authority that has its own problems as well with freedom of expression. It becomes another battle, because the new authority has new tactics and it's not any less staunch than the former regime. On the contrary, it's an authority that hasn't been used to grappling with notions of free media, freedom of expression - it's an authority used to operating at an extreme level of opacity, actually. It's not that the hope is going away, but it's just grappling with a new reality and a new form of authority, right?

IPI: People have expressed disappointment that there have been instances of censorship in the past few months, including at your newspaper, "Egypt Independent", where an issue containing a column from Robert Springborg that is critical of SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was kept off the newsstands. Has censorship changed over the past year, in terms of what topics are off limits, or in the dynamic of how censorship is exercised?

Attalah: The secrecy around the top of the regime, all the censorship that surrounded them has been lifted totally, so you can talk about the former president's life and corrupt dealings and repressive policies in all freedom now, right?

However, there are parts of this regime, including the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, where criticism has a price at this point. So this is where you find forms of censorship: direct censorship from the ruling authorities, manifested in interrogating certain journalists about certain things they have been doing, certain coverage they have been doing that includes criticism of the past regime.

But you also have the more problematic form of censorship, which is self-censorship, which is behind what happened with our newspaper, whereby you have people internalizing, you have senior journalists and senior editors internalizing the censorship regime they have been operating within since the Mubarak era and working with this rationale even after the revolution broke out. So these dynamics haven't changed yet, and I think [ . . . ] what is problematic is how deeply internalized this self-censorship can get sometimes. This is where I think there is a huge issue and a huge problem and it's not something that can be easily unsettled.

IPI: After the fall of Mubarak and other leaders in North Africa, there was a lot of talk about the end of the fear - and when you refer to self-censorship do you see that as a return of fear or did the fear never leave?

Attalah: I don't think it has ever [left]. Especially in organizations, even like ours, that had mastered this very intricate game of surviving an extremely repressive regime. Part of it is that the [Mubarak] regime had to tolerate a bit of free media in order to contain mounting anger, [so] journalists developed the skill of survival, but the fear has been internalized and I don't think it has ever left. Especially now [ . . . ] you have an actual military institution running the country, it's hard for this fear to go away all of a sudden.

Definitely, definitely, the revolution has involved many who raise their voices and are very critical of the very militant institution that in the past we weren't allowed to even come close to. The fact that they are running the country gives us the chance to address the problems of this institution openly and to contest the fact that they have been immune, by law, to media criticism - so this has been an improvement in terms of people getting over their fears.

It's a matter of grappling with [fear], dealing with it, having moments where you can get over it and make bold statements against the authorities . . . or just choosing to be lenient to survive somehow. It remains like it was - a process of constant negotiation, even though the space in which we operate now is wider. There is definitely more freedom, but this constant process of negotiation hasn't left anyone.

IPI: You mentioned that the military was immune by law from criticism. What does the Emergency Law mean for the media, and why are people calling for it to be lifted?

Attalah: The main problem with it is that anybody can be prosecuted or even detained without trial for anything that is perceived by the authorities as endangering national security. And this is a huge problem because, as we all know, national security is a very wide term. It could define anything from a kid who randomly throws a rock to someone who is really trying to topple the state. So the term is very vague and it's not something that a country that is trying to go through a democratic transformation can afford. So that's why we have taken a very strong stand against it.

IPI: There have been a number of military tribunals recently and they were also used to jail bloggers like Maikel Nabil Sanad and Alaa Abd El Fattah. Why were bloggers targeted in this way, rather than journalists, when you would think journalists reach a wider audience?

Attalah: I haven't had a chance to study exactly what the political connotations of the Maikel Nabil case are. I don't know if it's just a random, one time thing or if it has a deeper connotation of trying to perhaps send a message to everyone who's operating in the blogosphere and is extremely critical of SCAF rule. [ . . . ] It could also have been a signal to other bloggers that if they think the revolution means they can go on and rebel and take the freedom the Internet is offering them, they should think twice about it. One other reason to believe it could be a message is the way the authorities dealt with him: They only released him after six months of imprisonment [through a pardon] to prove the point that he had made a mistake.

There is perhaps an element of sending a message to what is perceived as a completely deregulated space by SCAF, as opposed to mainstream institutions that are penetrated by SCAF where there is a consultation with SCAF through the public relations office, and this is maybe why this guy was targeted as opposed to a mainstream journalist.

IPI: Journalists have been injured while covering more recent protests, but do you think that journalists recording the events now face the same sort of threat level as they did during the mass protests that ousted Mubarak last year?

Attalah: I think the threat hasn't gone anywhere, and you know we've had several waves of violence throughout the year and we have corroborative evidence that journalists [who are visible are targeted]. All these journalists who either get hit . . . just because they are conspicuously there, it shows they are targeted because they are hit more often. So I don't think the threat has gone anywhere. Especially with how unruly that violence gets sometimes, we deal with a lot of situations where security behaves in a completely unregulated way.

IPI: Looking forward now, what are the hopes for Egyptian journalists and what will it take to get there?

Attalah: There are definitely structural changes that everyone is hoping for on many levels: A better legal infrastructure that includes an information law, improving the media law that we have, removing all these ridiculous clauses that allow investigators to imprison journalists for expressing their opinions.

On a narrower level, I have a lot of hope in terms of how we as journalists develop our understanding of the practice and improve it, beyond not only the limit imposed by the authorities, but by our own institutional authorities. We also have owners - even if not, we are owned by the state - as is the case worldwide. Independent organizations are in essence also privately-owned and this is limiting the practice in a considerable way. I'm just hoping that journalists can autonomously take control over media operations and improve the practice, and it becomes a journalists-to-people process rather than a process regulated by third parties, whether it be authorities, business men or whomever.


Lina Attalah is the managing editor of "Egypt Independent", previously the English edition of "Al Masry Al Youm", a privately-owned Arabic-language daily first launched in 2004. She has written for Reuters, the "Daily Star" in Lebanon, the "Cairo Times", and the "Christian Science Monitor", among others. She also worked with the BBC World Service Trust in Darfur, Sudan.

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