IPI GUEST BLOG - Notes from the field: Egypt
Despite a Revolution, Press Freedom Remains under Attack
By: Shahira Amin*
I was deputy head of Nile TV International. I was also one of the network’s senior anchors and correspondents and I had traveled the world covering major events. Then came the revolution.
I was away for the first five days in London attending an EU-sponsored workshop on free expression.
I was following closely the events in Tahrir on the BBC and was unable to call home because [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak had cut off the Internet, and mobile phones were down. When I arrived, I went back to work and was in for quite a shock. State TV was showing tranquil scenes of the Nile River as the violence was raging just three minutes away from the TV building. I was handed press releases from the ministry of interior that said five people had died that day but [that] there were no clashes. So how did they die? They also said the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was behind the unrest. I was to host a live show that evening and my guest on the program was to have been Dr. Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, a professor of political science and well-known opposition activist. The head of the news sector asked me to apologize to Dr. al-Sayed and instead he invited a member of the ruling NDP [party] to join me in the studio. I was given clear instructions to speak only about the foreign meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs, the national reconciliation dialogue and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood being behind the protests. I had no idea about any of these issues and it was the worst show I ever did. I went home feeling utterly helpless. I had asked for a camera crew to take to Tahrir but instead was told to cover the pro-Mubarak rallies in front of the TV building. I refused.
Next morning I got dressed and headed for work. I stopped at a checkpoint near the Semiramis Intercontinental, parked my car and was heading towards the TV building when I heard the chants in Tahrir. Naturally, as a journalist I was curious to find out what was going on and decided to head to the Square to take a peek. I ended up staying there and joining the protesters.
This was an all-inclusive people’s movement and the demands of the pro-democracy activists were very legitimate: freedom, social justice, an end to corruption. These were courageous young people putting their lives on the line. I felt that if I went back to the TV building and spread propaganda lies, I would be betraying them. I would have the blood of the martyrs on my hands. If I quit, giving up my job would be a small sacrifice compared to the sacrifice these young people half my age were making. So I decided I wouldn’t go back to work. I sent my boss an SMS saying, “Forgive me, I am not coming back. I am on the side of the people, not the regime.” Here was history being made in my own backyard and I wasn’t able to report the news. I felt my hands were tied but when I walked out I felt liberated and relieved. I thought that was it and no one would even notice. I was wrong. I ran into a friend who asked where my camera crew was. I replied that I didn’t have a crew with me because I wasn’t allowed to cover Tahrir but also because I had just quit. She tweeted it and almost immediately the whole world knew about my decision through foreign media networks that called to find out why I had quit.
So what was the media situation like before the revolution and how has it changed?
The Mubarak regime, like almost all authoritarian regimes, used state media as a propaganda tool to tighten his grip on power. State media has more than 43,000 employees. Most of them practice self-censorship because they have lived under repressive regimes for so long. Mubarak was a red line they could not cross. I truly believe that if all the money that has gone to state media had gone to health and education combined, we would not have had a revolution to begin with. In recent years, a few independent channels and newspapers were launched but almost all of them adopted the state line. That’s because they are owned by wealthy businessmen who have close links with the regime so they did not dare risk falling out of favor lest their business interests be harmed.
State media lost its credibility with viewers during the mass uprisings because it gave a distorted picture of the events in Tahrir. Now when a TV reporter goes to Tahrir, he or she has to go without the channel logo or risk getting attacked by the activists in Tahrir Square. Midway through the revolution, the media started opening up and reporting the truth - anchors, editors and correspondents were falling over themselves making a 360-degree turnabout to tell the story of the revolution. But it was already too little too late. They had earlier called the pro-democracy activists anarchists, foreign agents and criminals. Now they were singing the praises of those in Tahrir. This happened because it had become clear that the regime was falling but it was also a response to outside pressure. Washington had given the newly formed cabinet a to-do list that had media freedom as a top priority. When Google Executive Wael Ghoneim appeared on one of the independent channels to tell the story of how he had been abducted and imprisoned for 12 days, thousands more joined the protests in Tahrir Square the following day. That is the power of the media, especially television. A total of 40% of Egyptians live under the two-dollar-a-day poverty line. They have no access to satellite TV. More than 35% of the population is illiterate so they do not read newspapers. TV - especially the local channels - is the main source of information for many Egyptians and is at times a dangerous propaganda tool. Only 5% of the population uses Facebook, and Internet penetration is low in this country, where there’s rampant poverty and high illiteracy.
After the mass uprisings earlier this year, Egypt witnessed a short-lived spring as the winds of change that started blowing here brought a more vibrant and diverse media atmosphere. The changes were promising with several new TV channels and newspapers being launched - all of them independent. Networks like Tahrir owned by journalist Ibrahim Issa - long persecuted by the Mubarak regime - and the 25 January channel, which only employs young revolutionaries with little media experience but who are passionate about being credible and impartial. For the first time outspoken members of the opposition were being hosted on all the talk shows and there continues to be a lively debate about the ongoing developments in the country with all voices being heard unlike in the Mubarak days when it was just the one voice of the ruling NDP.
But are the changes for real and are they deep enough?
The changes are merely cosmetic and Egyptian media today can only be described as sensational and lacking professionalism. The heads of channels at Egyptian state TV have been forced out by angry employees but the same editors and anchors are there. The mindset has not changed. They are still waiting for press releases to be handed to them from the newly appointed minister of information. This was clear when during the Maspero incidents (the Coptic protests) state TV was accused of inciting violence against the demonstrators after news anchors pointed the finger at the Christian protesters, saying they were attacking the military. The anchor called on the people of Egypt to go out and protect the military forces from their attackers.
After the revolution, there had been talk of dismantling the ministry of information and replacing it with a media council that would allow state TV to become a public service broadcaster along the lines of the BBC. It was hoped that it would become the mouthpiece of the people rather than a propaganda tool for the regime. There was this growing realization that without a free media that challenges the authorities and holds people to account, there can be no real democracy. But these hopes were dashed with the appointment of a new minister of information, a former ‘Wafdist’ who under Mubarak was appointed chief editor of the Wafd opposition newspaper (let's not forget that in those days there was no real opposition). That only meant more control of the media and the same old propaganda. This became obvious with each passing day. Journalists are being intimidated and threatened. I broke the story on CNN on the virginity tests conducted by the military on female protesters arrested in Tahrir on 9 March  when I got the first admission from a senior military general that these tests had indeed been carried out. The following day after the story was posted on cnn.com eight local websites stated that I had been summoned by the military prosecutor for questioning. These were rumours that were meant to discredit or intimidate me. I had not been summoned and I immediately contacted the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the New York-based CPJ. Several talk show hosts and journalists were summoned by the military prosecutor for investigation, sending a strong message to other journalists that a similar fate may await them if they dare cross the red line. The new red line is the ruling military council which has replaced Mubarak. Anything published or broadcast about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has to be approved by the SCAF’s Moral Affairs Department, the military’s public relations sector. Bloggers have been imprisoned for expressing their views in their blog posts and on Facebook. Blogger Maikel Nabil was the first prisoner of conscience in the new Egypt. He has been tried in a military court (notorious for harsh and hasty sentences) and was sentenced to three years in prison for being critical of the military rulers.
He went on hunger strike to protest against his confinement and lived on just water for more than 40 days. I defied a media blackout on his case and managed to get into Al Marg prison to interview Nabil and tell his story. Another blogger, Alaa Abdel Fattah, has also been detained and put behind bars. His imprisonment on charges of incitement against the military and illegal possession of weapons during the Coptic protests in Maspero triggered a public outcry. The revitalization of the emergency law in its wider scope has also angered the public as it puts a lid on press freedoms, allowing for arbitrary arrests and detentions of civilians - including journalists - without charge. In the last few months of his rule, Mubarak had restricted the law to charges of terrorism and drug-related crimes. Now anyone accused of incitement to violence, spreading rumours or disrupting traffic can be arrested and tried in state security courts. The interim government has also said it would not issue any new licenses for new TV channels or publications. The offices of Al Jazeera Mubasher, an affiliate of the international news network Al Jazeera, were ransacked twice and their equipment was seized, because they did not possess a license to operate, and for disturbing public peace. The Cairo offices of the Washington based Al Hurra were also broken into by state security.
More recently, two Egyptian-American journalists were arrested and detained while covering the latest wave of unrest in Tahrir. After they were released, they reported being sexually assaulted and beaten by their abductors. All these worrying developments bear testimony that little has changed and that the military rulers are using the same old repressive tactics as those used by the previous regime. They continue to stifle media freedoms and use every way possible to silence the voices of dissent. The media atmosphere continues to be restrictive, leading journalists to practice self censorship for fear of losing their jobs or of suffering an even worse fate. This does not augur well for free expression in a country whose people took to the streets to demand greater freedom and deeper democratic values.
*) Shahira Amin is an Egyptian Freelance journalist and contributor to CNN.com and CNN's Inside Africa. She also writes for Index on Censorship, a portal for free expression. Shahira is also Former Deputy Head of Nile TV and was one of its lead anchors and correspondents. She quit her job in the height of the uprising in February in protest at state tv coverage of the events in Tahrir. She has won several awards for her efforts to improve the human rights situation and the status of women and children in her country.