Four years on, Egypt’s media freedoms at crossroads

Analysts say that Egypt’s anti-terrorism drive has put pressure on media outlets to withhold criticism of the state

Shounaz Meky - Al Arabiya News, Cairo
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Concern over Egypt's level of media freedom and how far it has progressed over the past four years has been a focal point of local and international news headlines.

Analysts say that Egypt’s anti-terrorism drive has put pressure on media outlets to withhold criticism of the state during a tumultuous political climate.

“The current period poses restrictions and pressures on freedom of speech in Egypt, as we cannot describe the situation now as ideal, following two uprisings,” Yasser Abdel Aziz, a Cairo-based media analyst, told Al Arabiya News.

“The challenge posed by the country’s war on terror, in addition to the regional and international support to the fight against terrorism, has significantly affected Egypt’s ability to keep up with the requirements of the freedom of speech and expression.”

According to Abdel Aziz, the media is now “at crossroads” and that the restrictions it faces now “could be understandable.”

But the situation does not mean that journalists have the green light to practice self-censorship, he noted.

“Curbing media freedom is not justifiable, but the challenge facing Egypt cannot be ignored, and consist of restrictions over freedom of speech.”

“It is not the best thing to do but it is understandable.”

Egypt maintained a tight control over media since 1952 and only state news outlets existed. Licenses for private newspapers and satellite channels were issued at the beginning of the 2000s.

The licenses largely went to a handful of big businessmen who had thrived under the former President Hosni Mubarak’s era.

During the 2011 uprising, protesters called for freedom of speech that would fight for the interests of the people, not those of the state.

But several power shifts haveimpacted the media scene over the past four years.

Analysts noted a brief period of free expression in the months that followed the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, but it was short-lived under the military rule that replaced him.

Then shortly after Islamist Mohammad Mursi became president, his single year in power saw him mounting crackdown on critical media.

Egypt ranked the third-deadliest country for the press in 2013, by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Morsi and his supporters pushed through a repressive constitution, used politicized regulations, pursued retaliatory criminal cases, and employed physical intimidation of critics,” the CPJ said in a statement.

Later, and within months of Mursi’s ouster led by then General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian media grew polarized between those for and against the military.

Many privately-owned channels belonging to Islamists, which flourished just after the January revolution, were shut down. Some of the country’s most prominent journalists have gone silent and some newspapers were banned from publishing.

However, Egypt’s state and private media clearly decided to side with the military and supported a nationalistic media narrative.

At the time, “Egypt’s media catered to their audience’s mood” which was growingly angry with the Brotherhood and regarded the army as a saviour, Sharif Darwish, Professor of Mass Communications at Cairo University, told Al Arabiya News.

But the situation is also linked to media ownership in Egypt, he noted.

The country’s media magnates were seen as siding with the military in forcing out the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi hailed, Darwish added.

“The businessmen owning those outlets chose to rally behind the current regime, to support personal gains.”

Last December, Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt as the second country in the world for the number of journalists arrested, and fourth “biggest prison” for journalists in its annual report.

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