Saturday, September 08, 2012

Morsi Between Censorship and Freedom of the Press

The article below originally appeared in the pages of Prism Magazine.

By William Fisher

Ten years ago, when I retired from my work with USAID and the US State Department, I reverted to my first love – journalism.

My plan was modest: I would draw on my experience in the Middle East and elsewhere to report on US reactions to developments in the region, particularly in Egypt, which had been my last posting, I had no idea how labor-intensive this work would become. I had no idea that an Arab Spring was in the offing. Lamentably, I expected to be writing pretty depressing pieces about the worst excesses of the Mubarak regime – the crony capitalism, the highly partisan justice system, the torture in prison, the imposition of the so-called emergency laws, the faux elections, and the absence of any semblance of free speech and free expression.

These were the same ugly deficits I experienced during my years in Egypt while trying to help the country’s trade sector to compete effectively for world markets and begin to realize the promise of globalization.
I remember that my first articles were submitted to the Middle East Times. When I received copies of that paper from the publisher, I didn’t know whether to be enraged or amused. There were large sections of the front page where nothing was printed. I learned later that one of those blanks was what I’d written. Well, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that the editor intended to put my work on his front page.

Now what I had written was totally non-controversial. It was clear that it was chopped simply because the government censors didn’t understand it.

An inauspicious beginning, to be sure. But I decided there was nothing to gain from being enraged and so I settled for being amused.
Then came The Arab Spring, as the media named it. The promise was that everything would be different. The people would write a new constitution and be allowed to vote freely for multiple candidates for the first time in centuries. There would be jobs for all the college graduates now driving taxies. There would be trials and convictions and incarcerations for the members of the Mubarak inner circle who had become wealthy from the favors heaped on them by the supreme dictator. That inner circle included the military, which had effectively ruled the country since the Tahir Square revolution of January 25, 2011.

But now, eleven months after the Revolution, too many aspects of current Egypt are slipping back into standard Mubarak behavior.

One of these is the heavy-handed censorship of print and electronic media actually taking place in real time – almost as if there had never been a Revolution.

For example:

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI ) Condemned the Monitoring and Confiscation Policy through Stopping the Opinion Articles in the National Newspapers

ANHRI denounced the attack on the freedom of opinion and speech, which represented in the stopping of publishing of several articles in the national newspapers. The organization said, “The attack reached its climax when ‘Al-Akhbar’ stopped publishing the articles of the writer and the novelist Ibrahim Abdulmeged, which used to be published on every Thursday morning.

The writer said, “The decision of stopping my articles is consistent with the new editing policy launched by the new editor in chief, “Mohamed Hasan El-Bana” the writer, who was appointed by the Shura Council.

“Abdelmeeged” indicated that the policy of the new editor in chief is to stop dealing with the writers who criticize the Muslim Brotherhood Group. He quoted the newspaper’s officials saying that “all the opinion articles, for whom outside of the newspaper, will be stopped.”

He added “it is regretful to say that the editors in chief appointed by the National Democratic party were more professionals”.
In the same context, “Medhat El-Adl” said that he stopped writing to Al-Akhbar after the clear interference in his articles, “due to the editing policy changed in the favor of the Islamic trend.”

The news spread that the stopping of “Free Opinion Page” in “Al-Akhbar” Newspaper”, which is a page full with several Egyptian writers and creators as “Mohamod El-Werdani”, “Medhat El-Adl” and “Abdelmeeged”.

“Al-Qaeed” said this matter is conducted because the writings that criticizes the Muslim brotherhood policies, as well as accusing the editors-in chief that he tends to them and he won’t publish opinions against the MB in the newspaper.

Last week “Al-Akhbar” banned the publishing of an article to the big writer “Ableeah El-rewaini” as she described the appointing of the new editor in chief as “Brotherization” of the newspapers. The publishing officials asked her to delete the expression of “Brotherization”, but she refused so the article was banned.

“Al-Ahram” took the same steps through banning the publishing of the ex-leader in MB article, who used to criticizes them in his articles.

It is also stopped the publishing of “A hundred days of the president’s promises” by the decision of the new editor in chief, Abdulnasser Salama, without reasons. The page aimed to monitor the president to fulfill his promises of the first hundred days of his rule.

ANHRI said it resents this “severe attack targeted the freedom of speech and opinion.” It warned of “getting back to the practices of the old regime which aim to silence the mouths and harass the freedom of journalism which are the important guarantee to a good political life.”

ANHRI said, “We fear that the newspapers’ new policy aims to ban criticisms of the Muslim brotherhood group in the light of the control, of Shura Council of the MB’s majority, on the process of appointing the leaders of these newspapers. ANHRI calls for the necessity of changing the ownership of these newspapers and liberating it from the government as well as taking the procedures to fix the media to guarantee creating an independent, professional and credible media.

The reaction of Egypt’s human rights community was predictable and expected. It was also surprising that it was triggered so soon after the Revolution under the steel-soled boots of the military-led government.

For example, in a statement, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) “expressed its most sincere concern at the continued use of censorship as a State policy in dealing with media and journalism professionals.”

EOHR charged that “the most recent implementation of this stifling practice includes the State order to confiscate a series of publications by the ‘El Dostor’ Newspaper that were scheduled for publication on Saturday, 11th of August, 2012. This action was based on the investigations carried out by the Prosecutor General within the context of the reports submitted to the Prosecutor General’s Office. The ‘El Dostor’ Newspaper was charged with the alleged incitement of sectarian sedition, the insult of the President, and the incitement of social chaos.”

Several individuals were noted to have submitted formal complaints to the Publishing Crime Department within the Ministry of Interior, accusing the “El Dostor” Newspaper, and the Newspaper’s Chairman, Reda Edward and Editor-in-Chief Islam Afifi, of slandering the President and inciting sectarian sedition in several consecutive issues.

Could there be a move torn more directly from the Mubarak playbook?

Furthermore, the issued complaints also held that “El Dostor’s” headlines were a principle cause to the sectarian clashes of Dahshour, and subsequently requested that appropriate legal action be taken against the Chairman of the Newspaper, as well as the Editor-in-Chief. Authorities called for the appearance of Editor-in-Chief Islam Afifi before the Prosecutor General for questioning in light of the submitted complaints and the investigation’s findings.

ANHRI is severely annoyed of the increasing of the Monitoring and confiscation policy imposed on the Egyptian newspapers. Algomhuria stopped a page deal with the freedom of speech and confiscation in Egypt, which is the culture page. El-Mosawr Magazine stopped publishing the rest of the series of the book "returning from the Brotherhood's paradise". In the same time, an edition of El-Shab newspaper was confiscated, which was prepared to be distributing due to an article of the Egyptian Intelligence body.

The group said, “This is the most violent attack on the Egyptian newspapers and media after the 25th revolution and after Dr. Morsi became the president, such attacks contradicted with the president Morsi speech of respecting the freedom of speech as a guarantee to the civil state.”
ANHRI said, “The attempts to justify the confiscation, monitoring and the criminal prosecution bring the journalists back to square zero and threatens of an era free from criticizing and fears of jail or oppression due to a word and an opinion".

It also declared “the absence of the political will to fix the Egyptian media, which suffers from a long decades of un-professionality and the lack of impartiality and was the reason of several crimes against the revolution and the revolutionaries, such as incitement against the Egyptian Christians which has become known as ‘Maspero’.

But President Morsi found himself under extreme public pressure from the journalists. In what appeared to be a rush by President Morsi to create distance between his actions and the press, Morsi backed off the decree that jailed journalist Islam Afifi, a newsletter editor. The Associated Press reported that Morsi “intervened to release a journalist jailed over accusations of insulting him.” The AP reported that Morsi issued a law for the first time since he assumed legislative powers earlier this month.

President Morsi's ban on detention for journalists accused of publishing-related offenses takes precedence over a court decision that kept the editor in prison pending trial this month. It was the first decree Morsi enacted since taking office.

The court's decision and case against Afifi, accused of slandering the president and undermining public interest, has caused uproar in Egypt among journalists and intellectuals, with dozens holding a protest Thursday night in Cairo demanding the protection of free speech.
It seems clear at this point that Morsi is hearing Egypt’s journalists. They need to be able to write whatever seems true to them. Much of this prose is not going to cause Morsi to break into a smile. He will be very angry with much of it.

But this is one of the prices that has to be paid by those who would govern a multi-factional Egypt. Democracy is messy. Dictatorship is far more orderly and predictable. But Tahrir Square proved that Egyptians favor democracy over order and predictability.

Which means that, over time, Mr. Morsi will learn to live with his critics – he will not throw them in jail. Just as hopefully, Egypt will continue to develop a mature, independent, responsible, fact-based press capable of criticizing its Government without committing treason.

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