When Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last February, many Egyptian journalists hoped for a new era of freedom of expression.
But many now say they’ve been disappointed. A year after the revolution, Egypt’s independent media still face many challenges, mostly, but not exclusively, from the country’s ruling military council.
In December, when Egyptian soldiers drove protesters away from the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo, cameramen from the Al-Jazeera network captured images of soldiers shooting at protesters. Minutes later, soldiers raided Al-Jazeera’s camera position.
Shireen Tadros was reporting for the network that day.
“A group of military officers went inside the apartment where they were staying and essentially threw all the kit — the equipment, the lights — out the window,” Tadros said.
An Al-Jazeera crew member who asked to remain anonymous says the incident wasn’t surprising — that when security forces use violence against demonstrators, they also go for the cameras.
Gen. Adel Emara, a member of the ruling military council, was asked specifically about the incident at a recent press conference.
He said he didn’t know the details but promised an investigation. He insisted that the ruling military council supports freedom of opinion within the media, but he also charged that some journalists are seeking to incite violence and bring down the state.
‘Game Without Any Rules’
It isn’t just brute force that journalists have to worry about in Egypt.
“Right now, it’s a game without any rules,” says Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Bahgat says that since Mubarak was ousted, the consequences for criticizing those in power have grown more unpredictable.
“There is no telling what the army and the general intelligence are capable of or what the punishment is going to look like,” he says.
Bahgat says now journalists who criticize the military council risk having their patriotism and loyalty questioned.
“In this atmosphere of fear, the result is not that the journalists are becoming less free or less daring, but their employers and editors and station owners are becoming much more terrified because the threat now is not crossing red lines, it’s a threat of working against Egypt’s national security,” he says.
Using The Government’s Language
And that uncertainty has led in some cases to self-censorship.
The Egypt Independent, the English-language supplement of the Arabic daily Al-Masry al-Youm, was set to go to press in early December — until a senior editor stopped publication.
The problem? The English edition was set to print an opinion piece by an American expert on the Egyptian military suggesting that some within the army objected to the way the ruling military council has handled the transition.
Lina Attalah is the managing editor of the English edition.
“It’s a bit sad because we recognize how Al-Masry al-Youm in 2003 sort of inaugurated this practice of independent journalism that was quite absent from the media landscape,” she says.
The editor of the Arabic-language Al-Masry al-Youm, Magdi el-Gallad, wrote an editorial on the issue, saying the opinion piece was an attempt to incite a coup within the military.
The editorial continued: “I could not care less for the broken record about freedom of speech, employed by the West to achieve its nefarious ends against us.”
Attalah says this kind of language — suggesting that the West is trying to destabilize the country — is similar to that used in the past by the ruling military council.
“Censoring and then defending the censorship on baseless and void nationalistic language is quite disappointing, I would say,” Attalah says.
She says that the military was always a red line for journalists, and since the generals have been in power there have been numerous calls to editors telling them to be careful about what they publish.
Still, Attalah says this hasn’t stopped the flood of free expression about Egypt’s military rulers.