Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Assault on Egypt's Free Press

New York Times
The Assault on Egypt's Free Press

February 15, 2012


CAIRO — Despite the burgeoning of private, independent media since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster a year ago, there is less freedom of expression under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF,) the current military caretaker government, today than there was under the strongman of Egypt.

The continued supremacy of government-controlled media outlets — television, radio and newspapers — coupled with intensified intimidation of independent journalists, gives the SCAF control over the information Egyptians are getting about their country’s turbulent transition. This near-monopoly perpetuates an unfortunately common practice in the Egyptian media: self-censorship for the sake of survival.

Like many of the ideals born out of last year’s 18-day uprising, the dream of Egypt’s independent media to work freely, without intimidation, has been frustrated. It’s a shame.

Human Rights Watch issued a damning statement on Saturday. “Not only are critics of the military under physical and legal threat, but so are those who deliver these critical voices to the public,” said Joe Stork, the organization’s deputy Middle East director. The Committee to Protect Journalists tallied 50 cases of journalists being assaulted or detained in November and December alone. Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 166th in its 2011 Press Freedom Index, dropping it by 39 places from the previous year because the SCAF “dashed the hopes of democrats by continuing the Mubarak dictatorship’s practices.”

Over the last year, the SCAF has used the arcane penal code to try editors, opposition leaders and activists in military and civilian courts for “insulting public officials” or “insulting public institutions.” During clashes between protesters and the government, security services have raided premises of both local and international television providers and tried to cut off broadcasts.

On Monday, in the office of The Egypt Independent, one of Egypt’s premier independent English-language newspapers, the managing editor, Lina Attalah, described the situation as both an effort by the state to shape media coverage and an attempt to cater to the mood of the public, which was never entirely sure of the Tahrir Square revolution and has by now grown tired of the continued unrest.

“Things are not going to be sorted unless there is a true purging of the state media — the main apparatus itself needs to be purged,” Attalah told me. “You can propagate as many narratives in parallel — they get some resonance; their pool of influence is enlarging with time, I feel — but it’s not going to end the problem.”

She would know: The Egypt Independent was once Al-Masry Al-Youm English, the English-language Web edition of one of the country’s main Arabic opposition newspapers. Under Mubarak, both the Arabic print edition and the English Web edition were known for pushing the boundaries but also for carefully picking their battles. In late November, the editorial board of the English edition decided to print physical copies for the first time, but they only got to publish one issue. Their second issue, which was supposed to be published on Dec. 1 and to feature a critique of SCAF policies by the US scholar Robert Springborg, was stopped mid-printing, Attalah said, at the request of the Arabic editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm. (Springborg’s piece was posted online, however, as was an explanation of what happened.)

The Egypt Independent, which has been operating under Al-Masry Al-Youm’s local license, is now trying to apply for its own. Though it could get a foreign license and print in Cyprus, it wants to prove a point: that local media should be able to practice independently and according to genuine journalistic standards in Egypt. But that process is “a bundle of logistical hurdles, which are no less limiting to freedom of expression,” Attalah added.

The struggle of The Egypt Independent and all Egyptian journalists who report alternatives to the government-approved narrative is yet another in the long list of disappointments of the past year. With free media a critical component of representative government, the SCAF’s escalating assault on the free press is an ominous harbinger.

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