On August 6, the constituent assembly announced that it had completed drafting an article protecting freedom of press in Egypt. The article bans censorship and promises that the state will “guarantee the independence of all state-owned or sponsored media.” While the announcement is welcome, it comes amidst escalating tensions between independent media outlets and the Muslim Brotherhood, which cast doubt on the future independence of both state and private media.
The first source of tension came with the announcement this week of new leadership for Egypt’s state-owned newspapers. The Shura Council, the country’s upper house of parliament, oversaw the selection process. The journalist syndicate opposed the government’s approach, desiring a more independent and representative selection mechanism. Indeed, many are now concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood exercised substantial influence over the selection of candidates.
Many view the new editors as anti-revolutionary, anti-Christian, and hostile to other religious minorities. Independent newspapers reacted swiftly to the announcement of their selection. Many ran blank columns on August 9, “to object to the attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood to control national press and publicly owned media institutions just like the ousted president used to do.”
President Morsi has said that he supports the formation of a new council to oversee both state and private media, a move that will certainly spark further confrontation. The most heated conflict, though, is between the infamous talk-show host Tawfiq Okasha and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Okasha, a supporter of the military and virulent critic of the revolution, is easily the most controversial media personality in Egypt. On August 9, his show, which is very popular, was suspended for a month after the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), filed a lawsuit accusing Okasha of slander and inciting violence.
The rivalry between the two camps has also spilled onto Egypt’s streets. On August 3, two of the FJP’s offices in Cairo were attacked, and Okasha was one of the people blamed for the violence. In addition, before the show was shut down, a mob demonstrated outside Okasha’s production studio, demanding that the show be taken off the air. The crowd attacked the editor of an independent newspaper who happened to be at the production studio at the time. The editor subsequently accused the Muslim Brotherhood of coordinating the demonstration, although the group denied any connection to the incident.
The threat of violence clearly hangs heavy. Okasha has allegedly called for a protest against the Muslim Brotherhood on August 24 to demand the group’s dissolution. This confrontation, should it take place, will be a serious test to law and order for Egypt’s new government. While Okasha should have a right to say whatever he pleases, even though his language is often vulgar and his opinions repulsive, he crosses the line by inciting violence.
While freedom of press laws should guarantee the right to express divergent opinions, they should also prohibit expressions of hatred and violence. As such, Morsi’s new government and the constituent assembly find themselves faced with the need to protect freedom of speech in an atmosphere where violence is very close to the surface.