Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa has received a practical lesson in the talmudic proverb, “A word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.” Last week, the Saudi-owned television station MBC Masr announced it was suspending Eissa’s program, together with his $600,000 annual salary.
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The reason for the decision is that Eissa can’t shut up. Not content with simply shooting critical arrows at the Egyptian government, he recently added Saudi Arabia to his list of targets, calling it a state that supports terrorism, making fun of the war against Yemen and criticizing King Salman.
Eissa spent time in prison after writing about then-President Hosni Mubarak’s poor health: He was convicted of causing financial damage to the state – a criminal offense in Egypt – since Egypt’s stock market tanked on the day of its publication. He was ousted from his position at Al-Dustour after writing a biting commentary on the Wafd Party and booted from a number of Egyptian TV talk shows he once hosted.
The punishment meted out by MBC is also intended to serve as a warning to other Egyptian journalists who have gone after the Saudi royal family since King Abdullah’s death in January. Egyptian journalist Youssef al-Husseini, for example, warned the kingdom against changing its policies toward and cutting aid to Egypt. Other journalists have written about the Alzheimer’s that Salman is thought to have, urging Saudi Arabia to appoint a committee to decide whether he is fit to rule. Al-Shorouk, an independently owned Egyptian newspaper, reminded readers that the Saudi royal family supports Al-Qaida, while a number of commentators – from Egypt’s state-sponsored media outlets, ironically – criticized the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Egypt’s rival.
Saudi journalists, for their part, reminded Egypt about who pays its fuel bills and donated some $12 billion to the state last year. In light of the barbs that were traded, just two weeks ago it was difficult to imagine that Riyadh and Cairo would be forming a military coalition to fight in Yemen.
Toeing the line
And yet here we are: the fighting has barely begun and the Egyptian media is already toeing the line of the government and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. The top headlines in state and private newspapers described the Egyptian army’s successes on the Yemeni front; Saudi Arabia regained its favored-ally status; and King Salman earned praise for his efforts to kick Iran out of Yemen, especially after he announced an additional $1 billion for Egypt. Criticism of Saudi Arabia is suddenly seen in Egypt as treason. In the meantime, the Houthis captured central Aden, leaving the Arab coalition to lick its wounds.
The Egyptian media’s about-face is a symptom of the death of the hope that the Egyptian revolution had given to the country’s journalists. After Mubarak’s fall, in February 2011, government media outlets adopted the revolutionary movement and its heroes. Former loyalists turned their backs on the regime and described the revolution as “light that sweeps the country.” Veteran journalists “repented,” Mubarak supporters were ousted from newsrooms, and new board members promised the introduction of total freedom of expression. There were soul-searching discussions about the role of the media in the new era, and a new constitution guaranteed freedom of expression.
But a constitution is one thing, reality another. Not only did the short-lived regime of President Mohamed Morsi interfere in the media and arrest journalists, so has his successor. Since Sissi came to power last June, 46 journalists have been arrested – 16 of them are still in detention – and Egypt is now ranked 159th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index of the international organization Reporters without Borders.
The government-owned Egyptian Radio and Television Union is headed by 18 army veterans, most of them generals, while the Journalists Syndicate, to which 3,500 journalists belong, cannot look out for its members’ interests, much less reduce the restrictions on journalistic freedom.
In March, Yehia Qallash – of the state-owned Al-Gomhouria newspaper – was elected president of the syndicate. He promised to reorganize the union, whose bylaws have not been changed for 35 years. These bylaws, which include an article rejecting the normalization of relations with Israel, require all journalists in Egypt to register with the union, but offers no support for nonregistered Internet journalists and is powerless to prevent the arrest of journalists.
It would seem that the Egyptian media, the cradle of modern journalism in the Middle East, will have to wait for the next revolution to regain any of its former prestige. Until that happens, the Egyptian regime and its Saudi allies will continue to draw the Egyptian map of freedom of expression.