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Media remains at centre of struggle for control in Egypt

Shortly after a wall of graffiti was painted over by Egyptian authorities, street artists were back with spray cans and a new target - President Morsi.
Shortly after a wall of graffiti was painted over by Egyptian authorities, street artists were back with spray cans and a new target - President Morsi.

Amr Dalsh/Reuters

(IPI/IFEX) - Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party said, as part of its party platform, that it would uphold freedom of the press through the "elimination of government-controlled press institutions." It also guaranteed that press laws would be amended and the Information Ministry would be abolished along with the statutory Supreme Press Council, whose powers would be transferred to the Press Syndicate.

But progress has not been quick enough for many observers, who criticise Morsi and his party, which is the political wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hafez Abu Seada, president of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told IPI that he had seen a "setback for freedom of expression after the revolution in general, and particularly after the election of the new president".

Efforts to control the media

Morsi wasted little time putting his pieces in place. A little more than a month after his election in June, the president appointed Muslim Brotherhood member Salah Abdel-Maqsoud to the post of information minister.

In August, the Shura Council, which is dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, appointed several new editors to the state-run newspapers, provoking an outcry among other members of the press who felt that the new press chiefs were too close to the Islamist group. Salah Montaser, a writer and member of the selection committee within the Shura Council, resigned shortly before the appointments were announced because he "felt that the committee was biased and was leaning towards choosing Muslim Brotherhood nominees", according to a report in local newspaper Al Ahram Weekly. The Shura Council had in fact introduced a new nominations process by introducing new criteria and a new selections committee, according to the BBC, but observers told IPI they feared the outcome was the same: ruling party loyalists running state-owned media.

"These are the same tactics used by the old regime ... the appointment of editors should be an internal decision" Abu Seada from EOHR told IPI over the phone. "Ten articles have been banned from publication, and the banning of these articles have came after the Shura Council appointed the editors (changing about 80% of the national newspaper editors)."

Hisham Kassem, former editor of the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, told the Columbia Journalism Review that "there was nothing that could substantiate why these individuals were appointed. They [the Shura Council] were not professional in any way."

Several private papers ran blank editorials in protest on Aug. 9.

On Sep. 6, President Morsi formally appointed members of the Supreme Press Council, on the basis of Shura Council nominations, reports said. The Supreme Press Council is the body responsible for registering newspapers, issuing the press charter, and serving as a press complaints body, according to a recent report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). Morsi named several editors of state-run media, the head of the Journalists' Syndicate, politicians and political party members, reports said. The appointments were criticised from several quarters because, again, the appointees were seen as being close to the Muslim Brotherhood. At least two appointees subsequently resigned. Al Ahram online reported that Nader Bakkar, of the Salafist Nour party, stepped down in favour of "other prominent figures who deserve this position more", while Osama El Ghazaly Harb of the Democratic Front Party resigned because "the formation of the council was not optimal".

Journalist prosecutions

Two months into his presidency, on Aug. 23, Mohamed Morsi, in his first legislative move since granting himself sweeping executive and legislative powers, decreed that journalists held under publishing crimes may no longer be detained pre-trial.

The move came in response to a criminal court decision to detain editor-in-chief of El Dostour newspaper, Islam Afifi, who was arrested in August for "insulting" the president", and publishing of "false information". The Aug. 11 edition of the paper was additionally confiscated by court order and Afifi was held for eight hours before the new law allowed for his release.

The fact remains that under Egyptian law, insulting the president is a crime, even though the right to freedom of the press includes the right to criticise or even offend. Rasha Abdullah, a media expert at the American University in Cairo, told the online paper The Global Post in late August that she was concerned about "the number of lawsuits that have suddenly appeared against journalists for 'insulting the president'."

"The laws regulating press freedom in Egypt need to change to begin with," she said. "You cannot have the prospect of putting a journalist in prison for what he or she said. It's unacceptable."

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