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2011-08-08

The Battle for Egypt’s Media: Video Report on Press Freedom After the Revolution

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The Egyptian revolution can count a number of huge successes, most notably, ousting former president Hosni Mubarak from power and putting him on public trial. But the revolution is far from over. The struggle for governmental reform, civil liberties and economic and social justice is being waged every day. And there is one issue that affects all others: the media. Whether it is newspapers, television, radio or the internet, the media is a central component of the revolution in Egypt. And while the press has opened up in a number of ways in the wake of the revolution, it is still very much an uphill battle. Journalists still face government repression, and state media still largely acts as a government mouthpiece. Democracy Now! correspondents Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar have been looking at the issue of media reform in Egypt. They filed this video report from Cairo. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Egypt. The revolution can count a number of huge successes, most notably, ousting former president Hosni Mubarak from power and putting him on public trial. But the revolution is far from over. The struggle for governmental reform, civil liberties and economic and social justice is being waged every day. And there is one issue that affects all others: the media.

Whether it’s newspapers, television, radio or the internet, the media is a central component of the revolution in Egypt. And while the press has opened up in a number of ways in the wake of the revolution, it’s still very much an uphill battle. Journalists still face government repression, and state media still largely acts as a government mouthpiece.

Democracy Now! correspondents Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar have been looking at the issue of media reform in Egypt. They filed this report from Cairo.

GIGI IBRAHIM: This revolution started because we want accountability, we want transparency. And this is what many journalists are attempting to do, to really be transparent and to hold those in power accountable. And we shouldn’t be sentenced for that. We shouldn’t be summoned for that. We shouldn’t be interrogated for that.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In Egypt, the struggle for press freedom and media reform is at the heart of the revolutionary struggle for change. The 18-day uprising succeeded in ousting 30-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak, but he has been replaced, at least for the time being, by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. And with the press much more willing to criticize the state and cover street protests, the ruling military generals have begun to clamp down, looking to keep journalists in line, just as Mubarak did before the revolution. For the past three decades, the Mubarak regime deployed a variety of different tactics to muzzle the press. Hisham Kassem is a prominent publisher and democracy activist in Egypt.

HISHAM KASSEM: With Mubarak, it was quite a variety. One was registration of newspapers in Egypt. It was practically impossible to get registration unless you were dealing with the regime or one of the regime’s men, posing as an independent. All the way to throwing journalists in jail, to beatings of journalists, to putting pressure on advertisers when a publication gets out of the way. He was very creative.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: This is the Hany Shukrallah, the editor of Ahram Online, the English-language news portal of Al-Ahram.

HANY SHUKRALLAH: You had a fairly wide margin of criticism and of divergent opinions and views, but at the same time, it was all very tentative, not legally—not established or rooted in legislation or the law, that you could go to jail for almost anything, by text of the law. They could clamp down just by whim. Or if you really got into something serious that could show, you know, very clear case of corruption that is criminal and punishable, then they would get you.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In recent years, the clampdown also extended to cyberspace. While bloggers and online activists generally enjoyed greater freedom to criticize, they were not immune to prosecution. In fact, Egyptian telecom law allows the government to imprison practically anyone who goes online. Amr Gharbeia is with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

AMR GHARBEIA: The Article 64 of the Egyptian telecoms law prohibits use of any encryption. So, at the moment you start, let’s say, looking into logging into your email or your Facebook account or your Twitter account, you use an encrypted connection, and that means that both—that actually all you, your internet service provider and your telecom operator are all violating the law, and you could end up serving a five-year sentence, the three of you.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: While the regime cracked down on journalists who strayed too far out of line, state-owned media outlets acted largely as a propaganda arm of the government. Hossam Bahgat is the executive director of EIPR.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: We could talk about state-owned media, which was unanimously pro-Mubarak and his party, with different degrees of professionalism, but certainly not public-owned or public service media. So it’s media that’s owned by the Egyptian people, but that was working only in the service of the dictator.

HANY SHUKRALLAH: The starkest example of the state broadcast media’s acting as a mouthpiece of the regime in the most flagrant of ways was during the revolution, when you would have a million people in Tahrir Square, but then the camera of state TV would be pointed under a bridge. All you needed to do is tilt the camera just half a centimeter or one centimeter, and you would get the million in Tahrir Square. And of course, you know, all these anchors and TV figures were in a hysteria of incitement against the revolution. I mean, these people have blood on their hands.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The day after Mubarak’s ouster, many state media journalists and TV anchors quickly switched sides, from ferociously defending Mubarak to criticizing his rule and proclaiming to be on the side of the revolutionary youth. With the Supreme Council of Armed Forces emerging as the new rulers of the country, state media once again acquiesced to the powers that be.

HISHAM KASSEM: Government media is incapable of operating without a master. OK? Their editorial proposition is based on defending whoever is in power. And even when they got the chance to steer off that course, they were unable. And so, across the board, whether it’s in print or in broadcast, they are now trying to please the military council.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: With state-owned media toeing the government line, the ruling military council sought to clamp down on any criticism in the independent press. For more than half a century, the army has been an off-limits topic for Egyptian journalists by order of law.

HISHAM KASSEM: There were Law 313 of 1956, prohibits any reporting on the military, and that doesn’t necessarily mean things that are confidential or classified. By law, you just can’t report, so if the minister of defense goes on CNN and says, "We are going to change the color of our uniform," you still could be charged for reporting, because it’s not a question of whether it’s confidential or not.

HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: With a quick Google search, I can get the entire armament, more or less, and the weapons arsenal of the Egyptian army from American and Israeli websites. I, as an Egyptian journalist, cannot publish this in a newspaper here in Egypt without the army’s permission—and most probably going to say no, anyways.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Hossam El-Hamalawy is a prominent journalist and blogger in Egypt.

HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: After the 28th of January, it became—the situation became a little bit confusing for the army, and confusing for the journalists, too. On the one hand, before the revolution, you didn’t see the army, and if any news came to you, you know, I mean, you used to call them up to get their, you know, I mean, permission to publish or not. But suddenly, the army was everywhere. The army and the criticism and those who are in favor and those who are against the army, I mean, these are daily debates that happen, that the media is forced, more or less, to report on it. I mean, before the revolution, this was big taboo.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: With the Supreme Council governing the country’s day-to-day affairs, the ban on reporting on the military was nearly impossible to enforce. But the army sought to reapply the restrictions. In late March, the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Egyptian military sent a letter to all Egyptian editors demanding approval for, quote, "any topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, or pictures pertaining to the armed forces." The Committee to Protect Journalists described it as the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The army then took a step further and began to single out journalists for interrogation.

HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: They have summoned several journalists to the military prosecutor for interrogation, as a method to intimidate them, after those journalists crossed the red lines with the army. And I was one of those who have been summoned.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The military prosecutor summoned Hossam El-Hamalawy for questioning on May 30th, after he accused military police of torture in an appearance on a private TV channel. Three weeks later, Rasha Azab, a journalist with the newspaper Al Fajr, was also summoned to the military prosecutor, along with the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. She had penned an article detailing a meeting between the Supreme Council and activists campaigning against the widespread use of military trials against civilians. The military prosecutor accused her of publishing false information with the potential to cause public disorder. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the military prosecutor’s office as Rasha walked in to be interrogated. Among them was her friend, the prominent activist Gigi Ibrahim.

GIGI IBRAHIM: It’s really a shame that for people like her that do their job genuinely and respectfully, and with all—they give all, basically, they have to expose the truth for the people and do their job, you know, right, in a very courageous way—they get summoned, and they get sentenced in military courts and military prisons. It’s very shameful.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: After a few hours of interrogation, Rasha Azab was released without bail, but her case is still pending. She later explained that the military’s interrogation of her had nothing to do with the issue of torture that she wrote about in her article.

RASHA AZAB: [translated] They had only one goal by summoning us to the military prosecutor, and that is to terrorize journalists, to keep us from investigating all the excesses of the Egyptian army and the military council, and to keep the military council as a red line. We are experiencing the biggest attack on news and journalism and media in Egypt under the current military government. With an implicit agreement between the mainstream journalists and the military council that there shouldn’t be any exposés.

GIGI IBRAHIM: The red line used to be Mubarak. Now the red line is the Supreme Council. So it hasn’t really changed much. Yes, maybe you can say that we’re outspoken about the old regime, about the Mubarak regime. Everybody is—yes, they can write whatever they want criticizing the Mubarak regime or the corrupted people from the past. But now, if you talk about corrupted people now that are in power now—like the Supreme Council, some can argue, and so on—you get harassed, and you get summoned, and you get prosecuted and interrogated for what you write and what you criticize and what you say. So that’s not freedom of press. That’s not freedom of speech. And this is why we had our revolution in the first place.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In the most serious case, a military court in April sentenced blogger Michael Nabil to three years in prison for insulting the military, after he wrote an article criticizing the army. But in spite of the military’s attempts to clamp down on press freedom, criticism of the Supreme Council continued to grow. On July 9th, one day after massive street demonstrations across, the country, the military council announced it had sworn in a new minister of information. The Information Ministry has long been viewed as an integral part of the state propaganda apparatus, and many believed the position, which had remained vacant for the previous five months, would be canceled altogether.

HANY SHUKRALLAH: This is a portfolio that belongs to authoritarian regimes. No democratic government has a minister of information. And we don’t want one. You know, as things moved along, they were being subjected to a great deal of criticism, some of it actually very fierce, and they wanted control. I don’t see them succeeding, because there is this enormous pressure on the street.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: After January 25th, the level of engagement in politics by the Egyptian public has skyrocketed, as has the appetite for serious journalism.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: The audience for media, the readership, the viewership, has increased beyond imagination, really. There is—in terms of consumption, there is a huge demand on—not only on media, but on political media, including, of course, coverage of the—of what used to be uncoverable under Mubarak.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Since Mubarak’s ouster, half a dozen new newspapers have launched, and some 16 new TV channels have obtained broadcast licenses, nearly all of them owned by businessmen or political parties. Lina Attalah is the managing editor of the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm.

LINA ATTALAH: My concern is that privately owned media is not the same as independent media. So, I am very wary of how the governance of this new media, this new privately owned media, is going to unfold and to take place in a way that doesn’t replace the control of the regime with the control of a bunch of businessmen or a bunch of owners who also have the stake in this transition period and in the political future of the country. So I am very interested. I see a lot of potentials. But I’m also very wary of the limitations of businessmen venturing so much in investing in media.

HISHAM KASSEM: The bulk of the new media companies are owned by individuals, OK? And this is not a serious improvement on government ownership. Practically every TV station or newspapers has been manipulated by its owners.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But not all of the new media outlets in Egypt are owned by businessmen or political groups. Lobna Darwish is one of the founders of Mosirreen, a new independent media center based in downtown Cairo.

LOBNA DARWISH: Every initiative came out of citizen journalism in Egypt. There is a lot of people who have been tweeting, putting on Facebook their statuses, putting information online, uploading videos, and that’s where we got most of our information during the revolution up to this moment. So we thought that putting all this efforts of citizen journalism together would bring a new source of media in Egypt that’s dependable, that’s free and is not centric, and that can be really something, a force that’s supporting the revolution.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Despite the clampdown on the media by the army, there’s a burgeoning movement for press freedom in Egypt. Many of the revolutionary youth who helped lead the 18-day uprising are looking to create other new independent media outlets. An independent journalists’ syndicate has been established with the aim of defending the rights of reporters. And media advocates are looking to reform the laws and regulations governing television and radio and to redraw the post-Mubarak media landscape. They realize a free and independent press is central to the struggle for change in Egypt.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Truly independent media is going to be the only guarantee that we can really build a democratic society. We also need to ensure that society is democratic, and not just the government. When it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, when it comes to the rights of religious minorities and the exercise of freedom of religion, and when it comes to social liberties and personal freedoms. And a good way to ensure this—in my view, the best way to ensure this—is to ensure that the media are a part of this struggle to democratize our society, in parallel to our efforts to democratize the government.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In this critical transitional phase in Egypt’s history, the struggle for freedom of the media is just beginning.

For Democracy Now!, I’m Sharif Abdel Kouddous, with Nicole Salazar, in Cairo, Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif and Nicole’s coverage from Egypt was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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