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Egyptian Journalists Want Freedom of the Press - Except When It Comes to Israel

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Activists burning a makeshift Israeli flag in front of the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo, Egypt, May 26, 2016
Activists burning a makeshift Israeli flag in front of the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo, Egypt, May 26, 2016Credit: \ AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/ REUTERS/

“Is journalistic participation in the celebrations of the Zionist entity [marking Independence Day] considered a recognition of normalization or professional activity?” This question, which was asked this month by several Egyptian journalists on social networks, arose out of the invitation they received from the Israeli Embassy to come to an Independence Day ceremony that took place at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Cairo.

There was nothing new about the invitation. Until the Arab Spring, the embassy would hold the ceremony and invite journalists, most of whom (though not all) stayed away. Seven years ago, after the revolution started and the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked, the ceremonies stopped. The novelty lies, therefore, in the fact that the question was being asked by the journalists. In the past it was clear to all that attending Israel’s Independence Day ceremony was a serious violation of the absolute ban on normalization with Israel, which the Journalists’ Association had imposed on its members in the early 1980s, after the signing of the Camp David Accords. And suddenly there was a “dangerous wonderment” that seemed to call the validity of the ban into question.

Nevertheless, the answer was sharp and clear. A member of the Journalists’ Union, Muhammad Sa’ad Abdul Hafiz, reminded one and all that “Participating in the celebrations of the Zionist entity on the day of the Nakba is contrary to the resolution of the Journalists Union’s general assembly to prohibit any normalization, professional and personal, with the Zionist entity.”

The answer also included a threat, in that anyone who violated the resolution, “will be summoned for questioning by the association.” In the past, such investigations ended with the journalist being booted out of the association, which meant losing his license to engage in the field.

In another response to the question, journalist Ikram Yosef responded by mentioning an Egyptian journalist who had “boasted of his friendly relations with the press attaché at the Israeli embassy and even announced that he had participated in the Independence Day ceremony. After we collected signatures to demand his removal from the association, he demanded that we prove that he’d actually gone to the ceremony. These are cowards and traitors.”

Senior journalist Alhami al-Mirghani added, “We must boycott not only the Ritz Carlton Hotel that hosted the ceremony [] Is the sale of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia [in April 2016] a lesser crime than the dirtying of Cairo with a ceremony marking the launch of the Zionist enemy state? The regime, which strives for a warm peace with Israel, isn’t interested in anything except appeasing [U.S. President Donald] Trump and Israel.”

Al-Mirghani demanded the boycott of all Egyptian companies, academics and others who cooperate with Israel and demanded that “the names of these normalizers be published.”

Those who believed that the military cooperation between Israel and Egypt, between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the joint fight against terrorism would also change the attitude of journalists toward Israel must think again. Boycotting Israel is still an integral part of the nationalistic worldview of most Egyptian journalists.

But there’s a contradiction in the Egyptian journalists’ conduct. On the one hand, they impose a sweeping boycott on Israel that binds all journalists and forbids any deviation, while on the other hand they are against the suppression of the press, against the censorship that has been tightened under Sissi and against the orders issued by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.

Ostensibly, this is an independent council whose function is, among other things, to ensure the implementation of the article in the constitution that requires freedom of expression and the press. But recently, the council, headed by leading journalist Makram Muhammad Akram, has been busy drafting decrees that forbid the press from harming other countries. “This is not meant to prohibit criticism of other governments, but about harming other peoples and religions,” Akram explained.

Akram, who supports peace with Israel and used to meet frequently with Israeli journalists, once told Haaretz, while he was still editor of the weekly Al-Musawar, that the decision to prevent Egyptian journalists from visiting Israel and meeting with Israelis “undermines freedom of the press.” When he was appointed head of the supreme council, he told Haaretz: “Now I am in another position, which requires me to defend the independence of the media, including its decisions not to normalize relations with Israel.”

Since then, the council has expanded its activities beyond the realm of the press and the media to the fields of film and television series. Among other things, it ruled that high fines would be imposed on any television or radio station that uses “harmful expressions.” The council gets to decide what constitutes harmful expressions. The council has closed more than 30 internet news sites out of about 500 sites closed on the order of the government. In Egypt there are 21 journalists in detention, dozens of journalists have been summoned for questioning, and journalists were forbidden to write about potential candidates in this past March’s presidential election.

Opposition to normalization with Israel, condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood and criticism of Trump and Qatar remain the only areas where Egyptian journalists can lash out without fear, as long as their criticism is consistent with the policy of the regime.

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