Egypt’s long list of unending crises since the Jan. 25 revolution appears to be unending as evidenced by the latest crisis between the upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council, and the country’s journalists.
It began when the Islamist-dominated parliament decided to set certain regulations for choosing the editors-in-chief of state-run newspapers. These new regulations would affect more than 50 current editors-in-chief.
President Mohammed Mursi received the board directors and editors-in-chief of all Egyptian press publications on Thursday, during which he reassured them that there wouldn’t be any kind of restrictions on the freedom of press.
Most privately-owned media have been publishing anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments since Mursi was declared the winner of the presidential election. Mursi was the head of the Brotherhood’s political wing Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which had majority of seats in both houses of parliament, before the People’s Assembly was dissolved by a court order earlier this month. However, FJP still controls the majority of seats in the Shura Council.
“Our meeting with Mursi proved shocking,” said Mohammed Salah, editor-in-chief of state-owned The Egyptian Gazette.
“He is a very good man, but he never gave us straight answers. He made promises and guarantees but we are not in need of any promises; we are in need of a law to be applied on all of us,” Salah told Al Arabiya.
Prior to the Jan. 25 revolution, media had been under the control of former president Hosni Mubarak, who was known to jail reporters, close down newspapers and impose fines when journalists upset the regime.
The Shura Council is responsible for recruiting editors-in-chief and board of directors for state owned news organizations. Under the ousted regime, the Shura Council used this authority to appoint employees who would serve the state’s agenda.
The Shura Council’s final report on the process of selecting new editors-in-chief for state-owned newspapers pointed out that the deteriorating financial and administrative conditions in state owned press organizations was the result of the interference of power in the management of the chairmen and editors-in-chief of these organizations.
The report underlined that that the Shura Council, “the real owner of those institutions,” gave up on its role under the ousted regime, so the institutions deviated with it.
The report also clarified that there was no clear strategy on selecting board directors and administrative employees and, accordingly, this allowed individuals to be promoted on the whims of power, which led to deficiencies in organizational structure and internal dictatorships.
The report mentioned that efficiency, experience and leadership skills must be valued and promoted when choosing board members and chief editors.
“The conditions set by the Shura Council do not suit the journalists,” said Salah. “How are we going to be evaluated? Will it be according to our performance as chief editors, or according to the revenues we bring to our newspapers?”
Some of the conditions required by the Shura Council while choosing an editor-in-chief include implementing an age limit and a minimum requirement of 15 years of experience as well as stressing that no chief editor will be appointed if he was proven to be involved in a corruption case or had promoted the normalization of relations with Israel. The conditions also state that the candidate should not be involved in bringing advertisements to his news publication.
“It is well known to everyone that journalists bring around 70 percent of the advertisements to their newspapers. So under the new regulations, the journalist who brings revenues to his newspaper would never be chosen as an editor-in-chief. It is a punishment,” Salah told Al Arabiya.
The Journalists Association responded by saying that no authority, including the elected Shura Council, should have control over state-owned press organizations.
In a statement, the Association’s council expressed its rejection of the Shura Council’s attempts to interfere in the affairs of state-owned media outlets.
The statement explained that the Shura Council’s attempts to intervene in the affairs of press institutions raise suspicions that it is attempting to inherit the role and dominance of the defused National Democratic Party (NDP).
“They are definitely trying to play the same role played by the NDP. There is no doubt about that,” said Ameena Mohammed, a journalist at a privately-owned press publication. “Journalists will be forced to write what the Islamists want. If we don’t, we will surely be punished. There is no doubt, it is an Islamization attempt.”
Members of the Journalists Association said they fear the Shura Council’s standards will facilitate the appointment of chief editors loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood.
When asked on whether he thinks the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt would affect the freedom of expression, especially the press, Salah said that “it would definitely have a huge negative effect.”
The Journalists Association called for an emergency conference in July to pressure the parliament into preparing a new law on the issue that could be submitted to the state authorities.
As the crisis peaked, the Supreme Constitutional Court on June 14 issued a ruling stipulating the dissolution of the lower house of parliament – People’s Assembly. Things are likely to get more complicated as there could be a similar court ruling soon stipulating the dissolution of the Shura Council. Under such a scenario, the issue will be delayed until new elections are held months from now.
However, the question will always remain: will the rise of Islamists in Egypt affect freedom of expression?