WCBE

Egypt's Press Still Feels The Power Of The Military

Feb 23, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 6:04 am

When Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last February, many Egyptian journalists hoped for a new era of freedom of expression.

But many now say they've been disappointed. A year after the revolution, Egypt's independent media still face many challenges, mostly, but not exclusively, from the country's ruling military council.

In December, when Egyptian soldiers drove protesters away from the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo, cameramen from the Al-Jazeera network captured images of soldiers shooting at protesters. Minutes later, soldiers raided Al-Jazeera's camera position.

Shireen Tadros was reporting for the network that day.

"A group of military officers went inside the apartment where they were staying and essentially threw all the kit — the equipment, the lights — out the window," Tadros said.

An Al-Jazeera crew member who asked to remain anonymous says the incident wasn't surprising — that when security forces use violence against demonstrators, they also go for the cameras.

Gen. Adel Emara, a member of the ruling military council, was asked specifically about the incident at a recent press conference.

He said he didn't know the details but promised an investigation. He insisted that the ruling military council supports freedom of opinion within the media, but he also charged that some journalists are seeking to incite violence and bring down the state.

'Game Without Any Rules'

It isn't just brute force that journalists have to worry about in Egypt.

"Right now, it's a game without any rules," says Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Bahgat says that since Mubarak was ousted, the consequences for criticizing those in power have grown more unpredictable.

"There is no telling what the army and the general intelligence are capable of or what the punishment is going to look like," he says.

Bahgat says now journalists who criticize the military council risk having their patriotism and loyalty questioned.

"In this atmosphere of fear, the result is not that the journalists are becoming less free or less daring, but their employers and editors and station owners are becoming much more terrified because the threat now is not crossing red lines, it's a threat of working against Egypt's national security," he says.

Using The Government's Language

And that uncertainty has led in some cases to self-censorship.

The Egypt Independent, the English-language supplement of the Arabic daily Al-Masry al-Youm, was set to go to press in early December — until a senior editor stopped publication.

The problem? The English edition was set to print an opinion piece by an American expert on the Egyptian military suggesting that some within the army objected to the way the ruling military council has handled the transition.

Lina Attalah is the managing editor of the English edition.

"It's a bit sad because we recognize how Al-Masry al-Youm in 2003 sort of inaugurated this practice of independent journalism that was quite absent from the media landscape," she says.

The editor of the Arabic-language Al-Masry al-Youm, Magdi el-Gallad, wrote an editorial on the issue, saying the opinion piece was an attempt to incite a coup within the military.

The editorial continued: "I could not care less for the broken record about freedom of speech, employed by the West to achieve its nefarious ends against us."

Attalah says this kind of language — suggesting that the West is trying to destabilize the country — is similar to that used in the past by the ruling military council.

"Censoring and then defending the censorship on baseless and void nationalistic language is quite disappointing, I would say," Attalah says.

She says that the military was always a red line for journalists, and since the generals have been in power there have been numerous calls to editors telling them to be careful about what they publish.

Still, Attalah says this hasn't stopped the flood of free expression about Egypt's military rulers.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power just over a year ago, many Egyptian journalists hoped for a new era of freedom of expression, and many now say they've been disappointed. From Cairo, Merrit Kennedy reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: In December, when Egyptian soldiers drove protesters away from the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo, cameramen from the Al-Jazeera network captured images of soldiers shooting at protesters. Minutes later, Al-Jazeera's camera position was raided by the army. This is Shireen Tadros, as she reported for Al-Jazeera on the day of the incident.

SHIREEN TADROS: A group of military officers went inside the apartment where they were staying, and they essentially threw all the kits - the equipment, the lights - out of the window.

KENNEDY: An Al-Jazeera crew member who asked to remain anonymous said that incident wasn't surprising, that when security forces use violence against demonstrators, they also go for the cameras.

General Adel Emara, a member of the ruling military council, was asked specifically about this incident at a recent press conference.

GENERAL ADEL EMARA: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: He said he didn't know the details, but promised an investigation. He insisted that the ruling military council supports freedom of opinion within the media. But he also charged that some journalists are seeking to incite violence and bring down the state.

It is not just brute force that journalists have to worry about here.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Right now, it's a game without any rules.

KENNEDY: Hossam Bahgat is the head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He says that since Mubarak was ousted, the consequences for criticizing those in power have grown more unpredictable, and sometimes more extreme.

BAHGAT: And we're at a point where we make decisions about our work as human rights activists or editorial decisions in the media, and they are truly suicidal decisions because there is no telling the army or the general intelligence are capable of, or what the punishment is going to look like.

KENNEDY: Bahgat says now, journalists who criticize the military council risk having their patriotism and loyalty questioned.

BAHGAT: In this atmosphere of fear, the result is not that the journalists are becoming less free or less daring, but their employers and editors and station owners are becoming much more terrified because the threat now is not a threat of crossing red lines. It is a threat of working against Egypt's national security.

KENNEDY: One example: The Egypt Independent - an English-language supplement of the Arabic daily Al-Masry Al-Youm - was set to go to press in early December. That is, until a senior editor in overall charge of both papers stopped publication. The problem: The English edition was set to print an opinion piece by an American expert on the Egyptian military, suggesting that some within the army objected to the way the ruling military council has handled the transition.

Lina Attalah is the managing editor of the English edition.

LINA ATTALAH: It's a bit sad, because we recognize how Al-Masry al-Youm, back in 2003, sort of, you know, inaugurated this practice of independent journalism that was quite absent from the Egyptian media landscape.

KENNEDY: The editor of the Arabic edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, Magdy Galad, wrote an editorial on the issue, saying that the opinion piece was an attempt to incite a coup within the military. The editorial goes on: I could not care less for the broken record about freedom of speech, employed by the West to achieve its nefarious ends against us.

Lina Attalah says this kind of language - suggesting that the West is trying to destabilize the country - is similar to that used in the past by the ruling military council.

ATTALAH: Censoring and then also defending the censorship on baseless and void nationalistic language is quite disappointing, I would say.

KENNEDY: She says that the military was always a red line for journalists, and since the generals have been in power, there have been numerous calls to editors telling them to be careful about what they publish. Still, Attalah says this hasn't stopped the flood of free expression about Egypt's military rulers.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy, in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.