Egypt’s upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, recently appointed 50 new editors-in-chief for the country’s state-owned newspapers. These selections come despite protests from the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate against the Islamist dominated Shura Council’s move.
The syndicate’s trepidation seems justified. With many new editors holding viewpoints favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian press once again seems to be under government control. As power shifts from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the appointment of these new editors-in-chief demonstrates the Brotherhood’s tightening grip over the media.
While we have yet to see how these appointees will perform in their new roles, their past actions and viewpoints hint at the unlikelihood of an Egyptian press free from the restraints of ideology. The Shura Council appointed Abdel-Nasser Salama as editor-in-chief for Al-Ahram, Egypt’s oldest daily newspaper. In 2010, Salama wrote a column criticizing Egypt’s Coptic Christians, and in February 2011, he accused protesters in Tahrir Square of receiving foreign funding. The grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Bana, Mohammed Al-Bana, was appointed editor of Al-Akhbar, and Gamal Abdel-Rahim, who has been criticized for his statements against Egypt’s Baha’i religious minority, was appointed editor of Al-Gomhouriya. Soliman El-Qenawi, appointed editor of Akhbar Al-Youm, was previously editor of Al-Azhar’s newspaper, Al-Azhar Voice.
Already, there are worrying signs that criticism of the Morsi administration by the media will not be tolerated. On August 11, security forces confiscated copies of Al-Dostour newspaper from the company’s offices following complaints that the newspaper was “fueling sedition.” Several complaints had been brought against the paper alleging that it insulted Morsi and incited sectarian strife.
Prior to this, Tawfiq Okasha, owner and presenter of Al-Faraeen television station, was ordered off the air for a month following statements against Morsi. Both Okasha and Al-Dostour are known to hold critical views of the Muslim Brotherhood. Charged with making anti-Muslim Brotherhood statements, Okasha will go on trial September 1. Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief for Al-Dostour, faces similar charges and will go on trial August 23.
In another disturbing move, on August 15, Egypt’s second largest state-owned newspaper, Al-Akhbar, canceled one of its opinion pages, which had been open to independent writers. The move has been viewed as an attempt to remove critical views of the Muslim Brotherhood from the newspaper’s pages.
Given the history of government control over the press and after a year of violence and intimidation by the SCAF, reforming Egypt’s national press would undoubtedly be a difficult task. Indeed, throughout the transition from Mubarak to SCAF to Morsi, state newspapers and television stations have been criticized for their biased coverage.
In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, many had hoped for a liberated press among other institutional and political changes. However, after SCAF assumed leadership of Egypt in February 2011, the press was subject to intimidation and other similar acts of control used by Mubarak’s regime. At least two newspapers, Sawt al-Umma and Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English edition, Egypt Independent, were pulled off newsstands for running stories critical of SCAF and its members.
In October 2011, a peaceful protest gone awry at Maspero, Egypt’s state television building resulted in 20 deaths and hundreds of injured protesters. The Maspero attack reaffirmed that Egypt’s state-owned media remained under the government’s thumb. In its aftermath, state television anchors took to the airwaves to pay tribute to the soldier “martyrs” and denounced Christian protesters by blaming them for the violence.
In November and December 2011, violence and detention of journalists continued as protests intensified in downtown Cairo.
While advances in online and social media have helped propel freedom of expression, online media and networks such as Facebook and Twitter only reach a minority of Egyptians. State-owned newspapers and television stations, which continue to be the only news sources for many Egyptians, remain under government control.
With Morsi’s victory as Egypt’s first freely elected president, many fear that a Muslim Brotherhood dominated government will continue to push state media to take a pro-government line and support viewpoints favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the media’s influence on the Egyptian people, both SCAF and Morsi understand that the ability to control the press will be a key battle in the struggle for political power.
While the Shura Council and the government retain control over the state-owned press, Egypt’s independent media is ostensibly beyond their purview. Nevertheless, independent press outlets are still subject to the same restrictive press laws and face hurdles in obtaining necessary licensing to publish and broadcast news to the public.
Under Mubarak and SCAF, press licenses were regularly revoked for coverage deemed too critical of the government. For example, in 2011, the Ministry of Information raided and shut down Al Jazeera Mubasher’s office claiming that the channel did not have the proper broadcasting licenses.
There are signs these practices may continue with the Morsi government. Osama Saleh, the newly appointed Minister of Investment, recently stated that he retains the right to withdraw the licenses of satellite channels that “intentionally” spread rumors that might harm investment opportunities in Egypt.
The Constituent Assembly recently drafted several constitutional articles pertaining to press freedom that would make it illegal to imprison journalists for “publishing crimes.” Publishing crimes include spreading false information and attacking the reputations of individuals or the president. While the draft articles prohibit censorship, exceptions persist. Under Egypt’s provisional constitution, the government retains the right to censor the media during a state of emergency or time of war.
The Constituent Assembly has yet to finalize these draft articles, explaining that another three months is needed to debate the matter. However, as long as exceptions to censorship remain and the government retains control over state media through the Shura Council, the possibility of a free press in Egypt appears unlikely in the near future.