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Freedom of Speech and Press

TV host Tawfik Okasha was released after a ten hour interrogation and trial, for criticizing the new Muslim Brotherhood government

Despite the obvious greater freedom enjoyed in Egypt after the fall of President Mubarak, the state maintains a strong grip on the media. With the introduction of satellite television and the Internet, the authorities have lost a significant amount of control, but the Ministry of Information still leans heavily on state-owned outlets as well as privately owned media, whether print, radio, or television.

Under Mubarak, the privately owned press in Egypt had been somewhat outspoken, often leaving an impression of relative freedom of expression in the country, but there were some serious constraints. First, there were the official restrictions imposed by government that forbade any criticism of the President, government officials, or the army and banned the presentation of ‘false news’, the content of which was never defined. Second, there was the influence of religion, both Islam and Coptic Christianity. Any films, books, or other printed media were often first referred to al-Azhar or the Coptic Church for approval. Third is the influence of society itself, through public morality.

TV satirist Bassem Youssef showing a cushion with a picture of President Mohamed Morsi

Although the Egyptian Constitution dedicates an entire chapter to the freedom of the press, this freedom was always limited by the Emergency Law that was imposed in 1967 and gave the government the right to forbid publication if it posed a threat to national security or public morality. An additional 35 laws, the so-called ‘laws of bad repute’, detail various punishments for the media, from fines to imprisonment. After the amendment of the Press Law in 2006, it is still forbidden to criticize the President, government officials, or the army, or to spread ‘false news’.

In spite of the fact that several independent, privately owned newspapers, such as al-Masry al-Youm and al-Shorouk, attempted to describe themselves as opposition newspapers, most critical pieces never made it into print under Mubarak. Egypt’s extensive monitoring system – censors present within newspapers, government institutions, and universities – saw to this. Additionally, many critical ideas were never formed as a result of self-censorship that developed over the years as a means of survival. Journalists were easily prosecuted for slander or defamation and sentenced to jail when government officials or citizens filed a complaint. In late 2008, four editors were brought to trial for criticizing the government and reporting on the President’s health. One editor was sentenced to imprisonment for one year but was pardoned by Mubarak a few months before his fall.

Immediately after the revolution, the media found themselves in a fluid situation. On the one hand, there was unparalleled opportunity for criticism, but on the other hand, as would soon become clear, this criticism was tolerated only if directed towards Mubarak, his family, or the main figures in his regime. The state media shifted loyalty towards the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and, as a result, any criticism of the army was portrayed as against the revolution and the state.

The news about the infamous virginity tests was therefore at first hardly covered in the media. Shortly afterwards, at the end of March 2011, the Directorate of Moral Affairs of the Egyptian Army sent a letter to all editors of the printed media ordering them not to allow the publication of any news items related to the army without receiving prior approval from the army.

Many journalists challenged the SCAF, but not without repercussions. Journalist Rasha Azab and editor-in-chief Adel Hammouda of the daily al-Fagr, for example, were hauled before a military court, accused of ‘incitement against the military’ for Azab’s coverage of the military trials of civilians.

As more than fifty journalists, reporters, and photographers were assaulted and detained, the situation in the printed press grew so much worse during the post-revolutionary period that Egypt dropped from 127 to 166 on the Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders.

The situation was much the same with television. State TV shifted its loyalty after the revolution; from a mere mouthpiece, it became a tool in the hands of the SCAF. In October 2011, state television called upon the people to ‘protect the army’ from a peaceful, mainly Coptic, demonstration in front of the radio and television building at Maspero in Cairo. The result was a bloodbath.