The Egyptian press in peril?

Abdallah Schleifer
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Not really. But that is the headline - without the question mark, of course - for an emailed press release from the Committee to Protect Journalists that made its way, as do all CPJ press releases, into my email inbox. Indeed, I have quoted the CPJ in this column before – but the last time the context was favorable.

According to the CPJ, the Egyptian government “continues to crack down on the press” and is “forcing independent and critical vices into exile or prison.” And all of this is touched upon in a short documentary “Under Threat” released Thursday in Washington D.C.

The film and the press release make other accusations which I have dealt with in detail in past columns dating back to July 2013 and as recently as this last summer, and available for any reader at the Al Arabiya News author’s archive.

More to the point: This past week, the Egyptian press reported that 480 Egyptian journalists had signed a petition condemning a statement issued late last month by the chief editors of state newspapers and the leading privately owned newspapers, that they will cease publishing anything that would undermine the struggle in Egypt against terrorism. That statement was issued exactly two days after the Islamist insurgency operating in the Sinai killed 30 Egyptian soldiers.

Voluntary renunciation

The petition charged that this represented “a voluntary renunciation of the freedom of opinion” – in itself interesting phrasing since one would think that the primary concern for the press is to maintain freedom of the press, which includes opinion but primarily refers to news – which is which we refer to “newspapers” rather than “opinion papers.”

What can be said is that the Egyptian press and in particular state media suffer from a chronic ailment summed up by the Anglo-American expression that someone is being ‘more Catholic than the Pope’

Abdallah Schleifer

That petition condemned the chief editors, including the chief editor of Masry al-Youm, which is the leading privately owned Egyptian newspaper reporting in detail the content of this petition.

In the same issue of “Egypt Independent” - the English language online edition of Masry al-Youm - there also appeared an opinion column describing the present government headed by President al-Sisi as repressive, authoritarian, worse than the Mubarak regime, the destroyer of press freedom, etc.

Let us remember that both a report of the petition and the column of opinion mourning the loss of freedom appeared in the Egyptian press undermines the very thesis of both petition and opinion column.

Kneejerk reaction

The same day, al-Ahram Weekly, which is a state owned publication, reported that 15 Egyptian human rights organizations have denounced a decree issued by President Sisi that the armed forces was now responsible for the protection of state buildings as well as public ultilities, which means that civilian violators will now be referred to military courts and accused the president of violating the constitution. Again, if the freedom of the press, beyond the war zone, was abandoned, this report would never have appeared.

What can be said is that the Egyptian press and in particular state media suffer from a chronic ailment summed up by the Anglo-American expression that someone is being “more Catholic than the Pope.” Examples from this particular case, this means currying favor from the powers to be, or simply as a knee jerk response - to not just adopt and defend a government perspective, but to exaggerate that perspective; to take it to an extreme form, denouncing critics of the president as traitors.

Consider then another report in al-Ahram that two journalists - the editor in chief and a reporter for Masry al-Youm had been held for nearly 14 hours of interrogation by state security last week, not for publishing a report critical of the government, but for attempting to publish documents indicating that former ousted Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood had rigged the presidential elections of 2012 that Mursi to power.

The issue was a technical one, since the content of the report itself would further vindicate the armed forces for deposing Mursi a year ago last July. But since the report was based on evidence acquired in an investigation that is still ongoing, the state prosecutor brought charges against these two journalists, even though their reporting vindicates the present government:

Which suggests, at least in this case, a state prosecutor who is zealous in protecting investigative procedures rather than suppressing media criticism of the present regime.

Not allowed to fail

Very different is the debate now underway in the media as to the future of the state press, politely referred to by both the press and the authorities as “the national press.” That debate was set off by reports that the state publishing houses are some around $1.4 bln in debt. And while the present government is committed to reducing the national debt, President al-Sisi has recently declared: “We will not allow our national press to fail.”

Leading journalists are joining in a debate over options. One position is to close down the many state-owned publications that have failed, and keep those publications that have produced a profit and let them expand to employ the journalists from the failed publications. The other position, more nuanced is to either privatize that portion of the state press which is not profitable, or to put all state publications up for sale.

As for broadcast media, it has been rapidly de-politicizing over the past year. Increasingly less and less talk show time is devoted to politics and more and more to show-business celebrities, news from the world of sports and scandals. That trend has nothing to do with any government pressure. Rather, it reflects the radical de-politicization of an Egyptian public exhausted and fed up with the counter-productive culture of politics.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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