Press freedom under attack in Egypt

Transitional government slowly re-imposes Mubarak-era strictures, bans reporting of testimony by its chief at former president's trial.

By THE MEDIA LINE
September 29, 2011 16:28
4 minute read.
Mubarak heading to trial

Mubarak helicopter 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

 
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Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) banned reporting of testimony by its chief at the trial of the country’s former President Hosni Mubarak this week, representing growing signs that the censorship and intimidation of journalists is quickly returning to its pre-Arab Spring levels.

The military has detained bloggers and journalists for criticizing it, with blogger Hossam Al-Hamalawy, ONTV presenter Reem Maged; Amro Khafagy, the editor-in-chief of the Al-Shorouk daily; and activist Asmaa Mahfouz all facing prosecution in military courts for openly criticizing the army.

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Two weeks ago, the Al-Jazeera television network’s Mubashir Egypt office was shut down by security forces. Three weeks ago, the government temporarily froze licenses for new private satellite television stations and told the Investment Authority to take legal measures against channels alleged to incite violence and destabilize security and stability. On Sunday, it reached an all new high with the confiscation of one of the country’s leading newspapers, Sout Al-Ouma.

The decision to ban reporting on the Mubarak trial was prompted by the appearance of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawy, the head of the SCAF, in court on Saturday to testify. Unlike earlier sessions of the widely followed trial, the military junta ordered a complete blackout on information pertaining to the hearing.

Following the ousting of Mubarak in February after days of protests, Tantawy publicly acknowledged that Mubarak had ordered the military to fire on protesters, which ultimately led to the deaths of about 900 Egyptians and injuries to thousands more.  But on Sunday, no newspaper was allowed to report on what Tantawy now told the court.

What little information came out from the session is not promising, reports say, with Tantawy allegedly not testifying against the former president.

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“We’re definitely concerned about the current state of affairs in the country and the shredding of the newspaper is a sign that the military has its own agenda that is not in Egypt’s interest,” said Sout Al-Ouma Editor-In-Chief Abdel Halim Qandeel. He argued that when the government begins to limit and take away the media’s freedom, “it’s a signal to all of us that they are hiding something.”

One of the prosecutors present in court told reporters following the session that Mubarak’s defense was allowed to ask Tantawy several questions, while they were only allowed to ask one. They also said that security officers at the court’s entrance clashed with them and initially refused to let them inside.

“The court had previously allowed us to discuss matters with the witnesses, yet yesterday there were attempts to prevent us from entering the court room. We were able to enter after clashing with security. The court didn’t give us any chance to discuss anything during the session,” said lawyer Mamdouh Ismael. He added that the court didn’t even allow the prosecutor to ask questions.

Mubarak, his former interior minister and six of his top aides are on trial for killing some 1,000 protesters during the popular Egyptian uprising this past January. While polls show the majority of Egyptians support putting their former leader on trial, the country’s political and military establishment risks being exposed for their links to the former regime.

“Look at what’s happened to the media in recent times and it is easy to see the military is becoming worse than the former government,” said Qandeel. “Bloggers, activists and journalists are being summoned over what they say and write. This is not the future Egypt that people want.”

Confiscating newspapers, putting journalists on trial and controlling what was printed and broadcast was a common tactic during the former regime, where the state owned and operated newspapers and magazines and it was difficult for new publication to get a license in Egypt.

Following the uprising, the media enjoyed relative freedom with scores of new newspapers and satellite television channels launching.

Yet many independent publications still adhere to editorial policies that ban criticism of the SCAF or its generals.

"You can say whatever you want, but you will pay for it," videoblogger Salma Al-Daly told the PBS Mediashift program.

Initially hailed for their role in ousting Mubarak, anger with the SCAF has been growing for months, with rights activists accusing them of limiting newly won freedoms and putting civilians in front of military trials. Activists say more than 12,000 people have been tried in military courts in Egypt since Mubarak’s fall: all civilians, including hundreds of bloggers and activists.

The SCAF has recently reactivated the infamous emergency law to fight what it terms security chaos. The law was enforced for 29 years during the Mubarak era and was a tool for the government to fight “terrorism and drugs.” But critics say that in reality, the measure was used to oppress freedom of speech and to silence opposition.

Activist Kamal Daoud, a 21-year-old Ain Shams University student, told The Media Line that the people must take responsibility for the military’s actions and begin to look at alternative solutions. A planned protest for this Friday could be a time for Egyptians to return to the streets and demand that the military step down.

“We praised the military and helped them become very popular and enabled them to create a power hold on the country that has left the call for change and revolution nearly dead. It is time to act and act now before we lose everything,” he said. “If we don’t come out with lots of people, the military will continue their acts against people.”

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