• 17:48
  • Thursday ,16 August 2012

Clampdown on Egypt’s Media Raises Fears

by Investors Chronicle

Copts and Poliltical Islam


Thursday ,16 August 2012

Clampdown on Egypt’s Media Raises Fears

Human rights groups in Egypt have condemned a recent clampdown on media critical of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood amid concerns the new Islamist government is starting to imitate the practices of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator ousted by a popular uprising last year.

Al-Faraeen, a television channel owned and largely hosted by Tawfik Okasha, was taken off air for 45 days and warned it could be closed permanently. The authorities also temporarily stopped production of al-Dostour newspaper and slapped a travel ban on its editor-in-chief, Islam Afifi, as well as on Mr Okasha.

On Monday, the state prosecutor referred both men to trial in a criminal court on charges including insulting Mohamed Morsi the president, spreading false rumours and inciting violence.

“We note that these attacks have come at the same time as statements from the president’s office and from leaders of the Freedom and Justice party [the political arm of the Brotherhood] which have warned against criticising the president. These statements implicitly give a green light to attacks against media freedom using legal and security methods,” 18 human rights groups said in a joint statement.

A maverick who appeared out of nowhere as a TV host, Mr Okasha’s shrill and vitriolic attacks have outraged almost everyone across the political spectrum – from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Dostour is also virulently hostile to the Islamists and given to sensational headlines warning of impending catastrophe as a result of the Brotherhood’s political dominance.

Even so, journalists and press freedom advocates have been alarmed by the tough curbs, fearing the new authorities will revive the repressive methods of Mr Mubarak, especially now that the recently appointed information minister comes from the Brotherhood.

Concerns about attempts to intimidate the press have also been fuelled by last week’s mob attack on Khaled Salah, the editor of al-Youm al-Sabei, a newspaper critical of the Islamists. Mr Salah said he was assaulted by Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting against programmes critical of the president outside television studios on the outskirts of Cairo. The Brotherhood has denied it was behind the violence.

“We have nothing to do with the moves against the press,” said Mohsen Rady, a Brotherhood official. “Members of the public have filed complaints against a libellous channel and newspaper and the prosecutor took action. We are opposed to closure and confiscation even if a media outlet is hostile to us, but we support holding accountable those who make mistakes.”

Many Egyptian journalists have also been infuriated in recent days by changes in the senior editorial staff of some 55 media organisations owned by the state. The Islamist-dominated upper chamber of parliament made the appointments despite opposition to its choices from the journalists’ union that contested the professional credentials of the new editors-in-chief.

Sayed Mahmoud, the literary editor of the online portal of al-Ahram, the main state-owned daily, said one of the first actions of the newspaper’s new editor-in-chief was to shelve a series tracking Mr Morsi’s progress in his first 100 days in office. The coverage, said Mr Mahmoud, was unflattering to Mr Morsi because it showed that little was being achieved.

“They are following in Mubarak’s footsteps and trying to buy loyalty,” Mr Mahmoud said.

Traditionally, the state press in Egypt has functioned as the mouthpiece for whoever is in power. Although some criticism of the ruling establishment, if not of Mr Mubarak himself, was in the past tolerated in government newspapers, editors had to demonstrate their loyalty by writing pieces praising the president’s decisions

“The difference is that under Mubarak, a degree of professional and administrative ability was required, and then loyalty was bought after the appointment was made,” Mr Mahmoud said.

There has also been outrage following the banning of an opinion piece criticising the Brotherhood in Al-Akhbar, another state-owned paper. Abla al-Ruweini, a senior writer, said her Friday column did not run after she refused to soften her criticism and remove a reference to “the Brotherisation of the press”.

“The state press was run by people who made billions from corruption, and restructuring it should have been a priority in this transitional period,” said Khaled al-Sirgany, a journalist who heads the National Coalition for Media Freedom, a lobbying group. “If using it to influence public opinion was going to work, it would have done so under Mubarak. All that happened was that it lost its credibility.”