Tightening the nooze on the Egyptian media

By: Jacob Høigilt, Fafo.

After the Egyptian revolution, the country experienced unprecedented freedom of expression. This was apparent not least on the newspaper scene. Egypt has long press history and boasts one of the most well-established press systems in the region. The semi-official daily al-Ahram reportedly had a circulation of 900,000 in 2009, making it Africa’s biggest daily. However, the Egyptian regime has a long history of limiting press freedom by legal means, regulative bodies and repressive measures. The Mubarak regime’s gagging of the independent press led to a sharp decline in quality and circulation figures. Still, the press was never completely subdued, as shown by the existence of the highly critical weekly al-Dustur, headed by the outspoken Ibrahim Eissa, who was dragged to court several times because of his commentaries.

Egypt’s revolution has already had a remarkable impact on the print media. The total circulation has apparently doubled from 1,000,000 to 2,000,000. Independent, privately-owned  newspapers such as al-Misri al-Yawm, al-Shuruq and al-Tahrir (a new publication edited by Ibrahim Eissa) have skyrocketed while the semi-official newspapers have descended into a deep crisis. The serious print media played a vital role during the revolution, and it continues to do so at present, not least by the efforts of a number of prominent columnists, who has taken it upon themselves to educate the public, making sense of the chaos of political events and keeping up pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Television also saw great changes and more freedom after the revolution. A plethora of TV shows on privately owned channels offer political debate and comment, two of the more famous ones being Ten O’Clock in the Evening and The Latest Talk, hosted by Mona al-Shazli and Yusri Fuda, respectively. Both have invited well-known, outspoken and controversial public figures and are central in forming public opinion.

However, signs are that media censorship may be returning under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). There have been rumours that the generals have quietly re-inserted censors at al-Ahram printing press, where most of Egypt’s papers are printed, and some newspapers have been prevented from publishing on occasion. In the beginning of October, several prominent columnists left their daily columns blank in protest against these measures. As for TV, Yusri Fuda recently announced that he will suspend his popular political talkshow in protest against declining media freedom after a planned program with the famous and critical author Alaa al-Aswani was abruptly cancelled.

These developments are very worrisome. Of course freedom of expression is an important right in itself, but more is at stake here. The curtailing of media freedom takes place at the same time as state media shows itself to be subservient to the SCAF. The official and semi-official media institutions are big, powerful and in some cases very rich, and it is well known that the revolution did not succeed in changing them overnight: Despite some changes of top names, many middle-level executives with interests in the previous regime remained. Recently this fact manifested itself in a rather ugly way during the largely Coptic protests against discrimination in downtown Cairo. During the demonstrations, the state TV news announcer said during a live broadcast that Copts were attacking the army, and she called on Egyptians to go out and defend their armed forces. More than 20 Coptic citizens were killed that night by soldiers, security officials and thugs. The scandalous role of state television has been denounced by the independent media and some semi-official news outlets, but the tendency is clear: the SCAF wants to and is able to use state media as a political tool, while it increasingly curtails the freedom of independent news coverage and comment. This is all the more serious in an issue such as discrimination of Copts, where the SCAF apparently follows the Mubarak regime’s strategy of playing the sectarian card in order to divide the opposition. The independent media is perhaps the strongest bulwark against the success of such a cynical policy.

The SCAF’s gradual curtailing of media freedom is a sinister political development that bodes ill for a healthy electoral process later this year and Egypt’s transition to a democratic system in general.