Journalists defiant despite fears of return to Egypt’s bad old days

A recent crackdown on journalists and opposition activists has increased fears that Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi will use tactics similar to his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, to silence dissent.

Earlier this month, a group of activists spraying anti-Muslim Brotherhood graffiti on the ground outside the headquarters of the Islamist group’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), were attacked by plain clothes security guards and Muslim Brotherhood supporters with sticks and chains. Journalists who were at the scene, covering a meeting between Muslim Brotherhood leaders and Hamas officials were also assaulted by the guards. A journalist working for independent newspaper Yom El Sabe’ was arrested and detained for several hours, and one cameraman sustained head injuries, and had his equipment confiscated.

DEMOTIX |  Halim Elshaarani

A bus on fire during clashes in Cairo last week

The assault provoked outrage from Egypt’s liberal opposition and journalists alike. Opposition groups and political parties called for a “million people rally” to protest the attacks. In scenes reminiscent of the violence last December following Morsi’s decree giving him absolute powers, thousands of protesters last Friday stormed the Muslim Brotherhood’s offices in several cities, and four buses used to ferry government supporters to their Mottaqam headquarters were torched. Several journalists were injured during clashes that erupted between opposition protesters and Islamist supporters, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

On 24 March, Islamists staged a protest outside the Media Production City, demanding “a purge of the media” and protesting what they called “biased coverage of the violence at Moqattam.” Reham el Sahly, a presenter for independent channel Dream TV, was attacked by protesters, and her car windows were smashed. Protesters chanted slogans against TV talk show hosts working for privately owned media networks, accusing them of “constantly vilifying Islamists and deepening the polarisation of the country.” The protest was the second time Islamists have besieged the studios of privately owned satellite channels in the Media City in recent months, barring media workers from entering or leaving the complex. In December, Salafi protesters staged a week-long sit-in outside the Media City, demanding the dismissal of talk show hosts for attacking President Morsi and his Islamist supporters.

Last week, journalists also protested outside the Media Production City, demanding an end to attacks on journalists. Journalists have planned more protests later on this week, to demand authorities uphold press freedom. Diaa Rashwan, a leftist political analyst and newly elected Head of the Syndicate (replacing outgoing pro-Brotherhood Mamdouh El Wali) vowed to pursue charges against Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Islamist party’s spokesman, “for suggesting that journalists had incited the violence.” In a statement, Ghozlan said that the guards outside of the FJP offices were provoked by the activists and journalists, who taunted and insulted them. State-owned newspaper Al Ahram reported that another spokesman from the group said that “while the activists have a right to express themselves freely and protest peacefully, insults and sabotage were unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, President Morsi has issued stern warnings that his patience was wearing thin, and that “those using the media to incite violence would face punishment.” He has accused owners of private TV stations (many of whom are businessmen with close ties to the Mubarak-era regime) of using their networks to criticise and insult him. Two days after the clashes, while opening a conference on women’s rights at the presidential palace on Sunday, Morsi vowed to take “whatever measures were necessary to protect the nation and restore order.”

“Those derailing the democratic transition and spreading chaos will be held to account by law”, Morsi warned. He hinted that former regime officials — recently acquitted of corruption charges — were behind the recent violence, and promised that they would be “brought to justice.”

Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the National Salvation Front (NSF), the main opposition bloc, told Reuters that he believes the warnings were “a prelude to suppressive measures that would be taken to silence critics of the Muslim Brotherhood.” While denying it was inciting violence, the NSF has in turn, accused the government of launching attacks on the media with the aim of “monopolising power and controlling the state.”

Lawsuits have been filed against several members of the media in recent days. TV talk show host Bassem Youssef has had charges brought against him for allegedly insulting President Morsi on his weekly political satire show El-Bernameg (The Programme), broadcast on privately-owned channel CBC. Similar charges were brought against Yousef in December, but they were dropped before the case reached court.

According to Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and activist, “the number of lawsuits filed by citizens against journalists under President Morsi’s rule was four times the number filed during the entire 30-year rule of toppled president Hosni Mubarak.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) earlier this month issued a statement condemning the government’s repressive measures against journalists in Egypt and expressing concern about “the decline in freedom of information in the country”.  RSF cited the judicial investigation of prominent TV presenter Dina Abdel Fattah on charges of “promoting terrorism” as an example of the government’s repressive policies stifling free expression. “Gagging the media will only fuel instability”, the statement warned.

Fattah was released on bail of 5,000 Egyptian Pounds after being investigated by the Public Prosecutor for hosting members of the so-called “Black Bloc”on a show that she hosted on private satellite channel El Tahrir. The Black Bloc youths are members of a newly formed opposition movement described by the government as “a group of anarchists and vandals”. Fattah resigned from the channel in protest against censorship, after her programme was canceled by the network’s senior management. The prosecutor’s office said more than 200 complaints had been filed against her by private citizens. Members of the Shura Council (the Upper House of parliament) had also filed a lawsuit accusing Fattah’s programme of “inciting vandalism” and being a “threat to public order.”

Since August, several lawsuits have been filed against prominent talk show hosts and journalists but none have been convicted — leading many to speculate that the charges were meant to intimidate and silence critics of the regime. Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award winner Ibrahim Eissa was accused by an Islamist lawyer of blasphemy, and defaming Islam after he mockingly said on his TV programme that “pickpockets would have their hand cut off according to Sharia, but those who steal billions from banks are allowed to get away with it.”

Television host Mahmoud Saad was summoned for questioning by the public prosecutor along with a guest on one of his programmes for allegedly insulting President Morsi on air. The guest, Dr. Manal Omar, said on Saad’s programme that the Islamist president was “suffering from psychological problems after serving jail time under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.”

In recent months, the government has also pursued defamation charges against journalists Abdel Haleem Qandil (Editor in Chief of Nasserist paper Al Arabi ) and Islam Afifi ( Editor-in-Chief of the private daily Al Dostour ) who have both been investigated for “insulting the president.” Hannan Youssef, the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the local daily Al Messa has been fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds for libel. In January, columnist Gamal Fahmy was investigated by the Public Prosecutor for suggesting that journalist Hussein Abou Deif was killed for exposing the fact that President Morsi’s brother-in-law, who had been convicted in a bribery case, was released under a presidential pardon.

Rights lawyer and activist Hafez Abu Seada, who heads the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) has condemned the charges against journalists, saying they represent a serious threat to free expression in post-revolution Egypt. In a statement published by the EOHR , he said the increasing number of lawsuits filed against journalists and media figures was a method of intimidation used against journalists to stop them criticising the president. Journalists have meanwhile vowed to continue protesting to press for an end to censorship, systemic intimidation by the state and physical attacks against them.

State TV anchor Bothaina Kamel, who was investigated by TV lawyers in January for suggesting interference by the pro- Brotherhood Minister of Information in editorial content, told Index: “Journalists are no longer intimidated. There’s no going back to the old ways. The fear barrier is gone. We had a revolution for freedom and will continue to stand up against censorship and fight for free expression.”

Kamel also called for legislation to protect journalists against investigation and physical attacks. She also called for foreign aid to Egypt to rely on Morsi’s ability to follow through on promises to protect freedom and democracy. “Western donors cannot continue to back an undemocratic government that uses repressive means to stifle freedom of expression”, she said.