“No one will touch media freedoms,” said Mohamed Mursi soon after his election. “There will be no pens broken, no opinions prevented, no channels or newspapers shut down in my era.” In just over six months since taking office, this pledge has been repeatedly proven as hollow as his vow to be “a president for all Egyptians.”
The most recent example of this broken promise came last week, with news of the investigation by prosecutors of renowned satirist Bassem Youssef - likened to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart - for allegedly “insulting” Mursi and “undermining his standing.”
Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch, describes a “rise in criminal defamation cases, whether it is on charges of defaming the president or the judiciary,” as the “greatest threat to freedom of expression” in recent months. This threat is likely to increase “because criminal defamation is now embedded” in the highly controversial and deeply divisive constitution that was recently passed into law.
Article 48 allows for “the closure or confiscation of media outlets” if a court order is obtained. Censorship is permitted “in times of war and public mobilization.” Under Article 215, the National Media Council shall “establish controls and regulations ensuring the commitment of media to adhere to professional and ethical standards,” and “to observe the values and constructive traditions of society.”
News of the investigation into Youssef came in tandem with a probe into al-Masry al-Youm, one of Egypt’s leading independent newspapers, which said the presidency had accused it of “spreading false news representing a danger to civil peace, public security and affecting the presidency,” over a report on Mursi visiting a hospital. These cases represent just the tip of the iceberg.
“Insulting the president”
“Egypt respects freedom of expression,” claims Mursi. And so it should, being enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, Mursi says it should not be used “to incite hatred against anyone” - this vague, all-encompassing caveat is rife with ambiguity and open to myriad interpretations, misinterpretations and abuse.
“Such freedom comes with responsibilities,” Mursi added. This sounds fine in theory, but it seems that such responsibilities include preserving the feelings of a president who is easily insulted.
In December, TV host Mahmoud Saad was questioned by police for “insulting the president” while presenting his program. The same complaint was filed by the presidency with the prosecutor general against Youm al-Sabea editor and TV presenter Khaled Salah, as well as Ola El-Shafie, a reporter for the paper.
Another presenter, Khairy Ramadan, resigned on air for not being allowed to interview his guest, the Nasserist former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. And Amr Adeeb was reportedly forced to take a break from his show after he called Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood “failures.”
In November, the privately-owned Dream TV channels were shut down for a week. The previous month, Tawfik Okasha, head of the Fareen satellite channel, was sentenced to four months in jail for “insulting the president.” Fareen was shut down after the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party claimed the station was being used to incite violence against it on behalf of the regime of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of independent newspaper al-Dustour, was banned from travel and faced charges for - you guessed it - insulting the president. Amid accusations of “harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law,” authorities removed copies of al-Dustour from the streets.
“These actions show, if anything, that they are jittery and really worried about their image," veteran publisher and political commentator Hisham Kassem says of Mursi and the Brotherhood from which the president hails. “The first thing they should have done is nullify the media laws of Mubarak, but instead they are using them to crack down on political opponents.”
Consolidating media control
In August, the new investment minister warned that satellite stations that “spread rumours” would not have their licenses renewed.
The next day, the new information minister - a Brotherhood member in Mursi’s cabinet - said it was not his objective “to transform Egyptian television into a mouthpiece of government or other executive institute propaganda,” while adding that the mass media’s role is, among other things, to “control” in “the service of public interest.”
Egypt’s Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, has reportedly replaced the editors in chief of the state-owned publications - including the country’s most widely distributed newspaper al-Ahram - and created a Supreme Council for the Press to oversee and regulate the industry.
Colleagues of the state-owned al-Akhbar al-Youm’s new editor-in-chief Mohamed Hassan al-Banna have accused him of censoring criticism of the Brotherhood, and film producer Medhat al-Adl’s column in the newspaper criticizing Mursi’s relationship with the Brotherhood was banned.
The list goes on. “What’s happening is very serious,” says Hani Shukrallah, editor of Ahram Online. The Brotherhood “is not interested in democratizing the press, or freeing the press. It’s interested in taking it over.”
With freedom of expression comes responsibilities, says Mursi. Such responsibilities seem to include preserving the feelings of a president who is easily insultedSharif Nashashibi
In December, various newspapers refused to print their daily editions. The independent al-Tahrir said its decision not to publish was a stand against “tyranny” and “continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom." The daily al-Masry al-Youm said the papers were “protesting against the articles on the press in the draft constitution.”
Following the release of the draft to the public, newspapers went on a one-day strike to protest, among other things, the absence of any article prohibiting the arrest of journalists. Prior to that, three independent newspapers ran white boxes on their editorial pages “to protest against attempts by the Brotherhood to impose its control over the press and media belonging to the Egyptian people," wrote al-Watan.
However, the problem goes beyond insulting a sensitive president and Brotherhood - religion is also untouchable. Mursi has called on the U.N. to consider international action to crack down on speech that defames religions, and this approach is already being implemented domestically.
Famed Egyptian actor Adel Imam, along with other established filmmakers and screenwriters, have been charged with committing blasphemy against Islam for films they took part in over a decade ago. Imam was sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds, although the Haram Misdemeanor Appeals Court has since acquitted him of those charges.
In September, a court upheld a six-year prison sentence for an Egyptian Christian charged with insulting Islam and the president, just a day after the opening hearing in the trial of another Egyptian man accused of insulting the religion.
That same month, an Egyptian rights group said it would ask the country’s highest appeals court to consider the case of an Egyptian Shia convicted of desecrating a mosque, and prosecutors brought charges of defaming Christianity against a Muslim who ripped a Bible.
After deeply dividing the country by temporarily declaring himself above the law, creating a constitutional crisis, curtailing the judiciary and military, and muzzling the media - whose freedoms he had vowed to uphold - who else will be the target of Mursi’s, and the Brotherhood’s, consolidation of power?
(Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash)