Egypt's fuzzy freedom of the press
The Egyptian media is far more daring today than under Mubarak, but that's no substitute for a constitutional provision guaranteeing its freedom.
Members of Egypt's journalists syndicate were taken by complete surprise when the association's chairman, Mamdouh al-Wali, entered the hall of the constituent assembly and voted for the draft constitution. Until last Thursday, Wali, whom President Mohammed Morsi appointed chairman of state newspaper Al-Ahram, supported the journalists boycotting the assembly because the draft did not guarantee freedom of the press. They were mainly angry at the lack of a clause banning the detention of journalists for infractions of the media law.
Along with measures on closing newspapers and banning circulation, the detention of journalists has symbolized the decline of freedom of the press under Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat. The Tahrir revolution, the journalists hoped, would let them criticize the regime - a free press.
But the draft constitution made clear that the gap between the revolution's promises and the constitution remains wide. The journalists decided to boycott the constituent assembly's meetings and even called for a newspaper strike until the draft was amended.
It cannot be denied that since the revolution, even state-sponsored newspapers have sharpened their criticism of the government, going well beyond what was acceptable during the Mubarak era. In an interview with Morsi broadcast last Thursday on Egyptian television, the interviewers dared interrupt the president; they asked him penetrating questions that he evaded using stock phrases. The interviewers went so far as to repeat questions they felt Morsi hadn't responded to well enough.
Just answer the question
The interview, of course, was not broadcast live, and in the opening question, one interviewer addressed her subject as "Dr. Morsi," not "Mr. President." Anyone who saw the interviews with Mubarak on national television would have been impressed by the effort to produce real answers, in contrast to the formulaic questions posed to Mubarak.
But Egypt's new journalism is no substitute for a constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of the press. Given that Wali is their representative and also close to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian journalists expected a show of solidarity from him and a willingness to defend them.
Asked about the change in his position, Wali said "they promised me that the constitution's clauses would be changed, that a clause explicitly banning the detention of journalists would be added, and that the supreme media council, whose role is to oversee public information and media activities, would be divided into two parts - a media council and a public information council. Moreover, I was promised that there would be a clause protecting state media against privatization."
But constituent assembly chairman Hossam el-Gheriany, who is also president of the Cairo appeals court and who for years led the struggle for an independent judiciary, insisted he only promised Wali that his requests would be brought to the assembly's attention. The proposal to include a special clause opposing the detention of journalists was rejected by a large majority. The clause on freedom of the press stipulates that such freedom is ensured by the constitution but will be constrained by "national security needs," and that newspapers can be closed or boycotted only by court order.
The clause is more conducive to press freedom than the measures in the previous constitution, but it still gives priority to "security needs," which are to be interpreted by the regime. On the other hand, the constitution allows any person, not only a political party or a company, to start a newspaper without having to trudge through the bureaucratic maze that in the past prevented new legal newspapers from being set up.
Morsi's courageous decision
The interesting point is that Morsi was the man who decided in August that journalists shouldn't be detained for investigation. That was a courageous decision reached after the protests that followed the arrest of Islam Afifi, editor of the newspaper Al-Dostour. He was arrested on suspicion of "mendacious publication insulting to the president that could harm public security and the public interest, while stirring panic."
These were standard formulas during the Mubarak era, formulas once used by Abdul Majid Mahmoud, the attorney general Morsi dismissed about a week and a half ago. The irony is that Morsi's defense in August against detentions and interrogations of journalists is just one decision Morsi tried to use to make himself immune to court appeals. The maneuver set off the turbulence that is rocking Egypt.
In any case, to enjoy the fruits of the fuzzy formulations in the draft constitution, the journalists must be patient and wait until the draconian media laws are amended. They can expect another tough struggle in the lower house of parliament, a body that currently awaits an election date.
No matter what happens, the new regime will have a hard time abandoning the new models for newspaper reporting.
The campaign for electronic-media freedom will be tougher because the online media are considered more threatening; the constitution holds that these outlets' activities are to be regulated and defined by law. The constitution doesn't give special status to the electronic media.