Muzzled Press Trying to Bite Back in Egypt

Five years after the revolution, restrictions on reporters are now worse than during the Mubarak era.

Egyptian journalists protesting against press restrictions and demanding the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate building in Cairo, May 4, 2016.
Staff, Reuters

“Mourn for the freedom of the press,” states the black sash adorning the top-right corner of Egyptian news website Yanair Gate (January Gate). “A press that isn’t cowardly,” is the website’s slogan. But cowardly or not, the fact is that its editor, Amr Badr, and his colleague, Mahmoud al-Sakka, were arrested last week for allegedly “spreading false news, hurting the unity of the nation and conspiring to harm the constitution.”

It’s nothing new for journalists to get arrested in Egypt. If one thought the press had been liberated after the 2011 revolution, five years down the line it’s clear that when it comes to freedom of expression, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s regime is worse than those of former presidents Hosni Mubarak or Mohammed Morsi.

According to conservative figures, more than 30 reporters are currently behind bars. But because not all are registered with the journalists’ association, and many work for websites that the association doesn’t recognize, the actual numbers in prison may be two or three times’ greater.

It isn’t only the personal situations of reporters that highlights the lack of press freedom in Egypt. At the end of last week, police forces – 40 officers (or 15, or 8, depending on who you ask) – stormed the Journalists Syndicate headquarters in Cairo, in the absence of the group’s president, Yehia Qallash, who was therefore unable to oversee matters.

The raid provoked a major public backlash, leading newspapers to threaten to publish a black front page on Sunday. It was the first time in the history of the Journalists Syndicate that its building had been raided by security forces, stated Qallash, who was elected in March 2015 and has been struggling bitterly over journalists’ terms of work ever since.

Qallash, who also writes for the government newspaper Al-Gomhuria, wasn’t the only one protesting against the raid. In an extraordinary editorial, Al-Ahram took aim at the interior minister, Majdi Abdul Ghafour, and his people for their actions against journalists, which are hurting the constitution and freedom of the press, it wrote. Social networks were fired up and demanded Ghafour’s immediate dismissal.

Qallash himself released an announcement calling on journalists to stop publishing the minister’s photograph, or to publish it as a negative; not to publish announcements from the Interior Ministry; to release the detained journalists; and to enact a law forbidding the arrest of reporters for what they publish. Qallash also intends to convene the Journalists Syndicate on Tuesday to call for a strike.

The spirit of revolution suddenly seems to have been reawoken. But don’t count your chickens. The structure of the media in Egypt, and the dependence of the press corps and newspapers on the government, render it highly doubtful that the reporters will rack up any real achievements. Their salary, and pension payments, depend on the state budget. Chief editors and newspaper boards are appointed with the blessing of the higher press council, which is bound with shackles of steel to the government – most notably to the interior minister.

Many of the thousands of journalists working in Egypt cannot survive on the salary they receive. Compared with the average wage in the Gulf states, they earn 10 to 20 times less. Egyptian law enables journalists to be arrested for the crime of publishing vague reports – so, a reporter could stand trial for an offense against national security even if his report was about the state of the economy. Taking aim at the army, religion or the president or his family is also against the law, though there is no explanation of what constitutes a crime under these sections.

Qallash may charge that it “isn’t the interior minister that’s running the country; there’s a state named Egypt.” But he was also forced to discuss the crisis with the head of intelligence, Gen. Khaled Fawzy, during a condolence call for the deceased mother of former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab. Their meeting took place at a mosque named after Gen. Hussein Tantawi, the former defense chief. Why would the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate and the chairman of the press corps talk? Every reason. The head of intel is the one who determines what is bad for state security; he’s the one responsible for preventing “subversion”; he can affect who’s arrested and who’s released.

Journalists Syndicate President Yehia Qallash during a protest by reporters in Cairo, May 4, 2016.
Staff, Reuters

After the 2011 revolution, reporters wanted to be weaned off the teats of government and called for the establishment of an independent public communications authority. It didn’t happen, and the topic has fallen off the public agenda.

Legislating a new law to govern the press, one reflecting the “values of the revolution,” has been dragging its feet through parliament, where President Sissi has a majority. The ones left criticizing the government and the policies of the president are a few websites that risk being shut down and their editors’ arrested.

It will be interesting to see if Sissi is moved by the present wave of unrest and fires the minister, or if he goes to war with the press to show them, and the people of Egypt, where the boundaries lie.