“I have an old colleague — he’s over 80 years old — who every day would bring a bunch of newspapers to the office,” recounted Karim Yehia, a journalist for Al-Ahram, the largest state-owned newspaper in Egypt. “But recently, I noticed he was only buying one newspaper a day. I asked him why, and he replied, ‘All the newspapers are the same now anyway.’”
Following President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, and the military’s takeover on July 3, 2013, the army quickly established a “war on terrorism” narrative, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as the enemy and the military as the only capable porter of stability and security to the politically tumultuous country. Soon thereafter, the Egyptian mainstream media began mirroring this account, with the majority of both state-owned and privately owned media offering unwavering support for the regime. In the period that has followed, challenges to that narrative have effectively been shut out.
In the talons of the state
The hold of the Egyptian authorities on media is nothing new. Even during the 18 days in Tahrir Square in 2011, state media hesitated to report on the revolution, either downplaying or outright ignoring the obvious eruption just outside their bureaus. However, with the push from private press and citizen journalist reports, a renewed sense of responsibility began to flourish.
“It was really remarkable because we could write what we wanted. We could attack the regime or criticize the military,” said Hadeer el Mahdawy, an Egyptian correspondent for a Lebanese newspaper, to Ricochet. “We could write facts.”
“After the revolution, there was a shock to the regime that opened the sphere of freedom, but not completely,” Yehia, a journalist from Egypt’s largest state-owned newspaper Al Ahram, told Ricochet. By autumn, the glimpse of objectivity had already begun to wane, with many state-owned papers again throwing their support behind the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body of 20 to 25 military officers that took control of the country between the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.
The situation has not improved with the current government of al-Sisi. The deterioration of press freedoms that began under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2012 “became worse under Morsi, and then worse again under al-Sisi,” said el-Mahdawy.
“Starting with July 3, and then with the inauguration of al-Sisi, we are now passing under the darkest period for freedom of expression,” said Yehia, who insists that even under Mubarak, control of the media was not as tight as it is now.
Others disagree. “This period for the media is heaven compared to Mubarak’s era,” said Hisham Qassem, a former founding editor of privately owned newspaper Al Masry al Youm, to Ricochet — although he characterized the present level of objectivity within the media as standing at “minus 40.”
Loyalty over objectivity
Just hours after the military reclaimed power in 2013, numerous media outlets affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood were shut down. In the maelstrom of that summer, polarization intensified and journalists were often caught in the middle, attacked from both pro-Morsi supporters as well as by the security forces.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since Morsi’s ouster there have been dozens of assaults against journalists, with six killed and over 65 detained, 11 of those still behind bars. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression reported that over 195 journalists were assaulted and injured in the 11 months following the demonstrations on June 30, 2013, that led to the ouster of Morsi and the military takeover.
Despite the physical aggressions and fatalities, the worst of which were inflicted by the security forces, many in the media threw their weight behind the coup.
“The atmosphere was already set to be turned against Morsi and his supporters,” Sherif Mansour, the Middle East researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Ricochet. Because the media had largely been at odds with Morsi’s regime, they tilted towards the military’s narrative of “war on terrorism” and the need to stabilize the country.
Earlier this year, al-Sisi hosted meetings with a number of editors and TV hosts, asking them to emphasize a sense of danger in the country. For Yehia, the meetings indicate al-Sisi’s use of the media to promote the regime’s agenda. “He speaks about responsible press, but for him, this means a loyal press.”
In October this year, a bombing in Sinai resulted in the deaths of 33 security personnel. Two days later, 17 editors of some of the largest state-owned and privately owned news outlets held a meeting and announced that the media should support the state in its “war on terrorism” and pledged to “stop publishing statements that would support terrorism and undermine state institutions directly or indirectly.” Diaa Rashwan, the head of the Press Syndicate, which represents more than 10,000 Egyptian journalists, was among the signatories.
“I wasn’t shocked because these editors are completely loyal to Sisi,” said Yehia. “They just put what they are practicing on a daily basis into a statement.”
The reach of the state
The media has by and large created a cult of personality surrounding al-Sisi, lauding him as a hero and crystallizing support for the security forces, while leaving little room for exceptions.
“News hosts and journalists who criticize the regime have suddenly been fired, and without official reason,” said Mona Nader, a media researcher for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Ricochet. Moreover, others have resigned citing a lack of freedom and concerns for their safety.
The state’s narrative has successfully burrowed itself into the national mindset, with its call on citizens to support the state in preserving the country from harm, terrorists and spies. Out of this manifested the idea of the “honourable citizen.” Following Morsi’s ouster, the state set up telephone hotlines for citizens to report anyone they suspected of being supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In November, Alain Gresh, an editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, and two Egyptian journalists were detained and questioned by Egyptian police after speaking about politics in a café. The three were reported by another customer at a nearby table. The state has not only secured its hold over public spaces and the press, but is encroaching on semi-private spheres as well.
A week after the pledge from editors of numerous leading news outlets to support the state, a group of journalists met to condemn the editors’ vow, calling it “the death of the profession of journalism.” Over 600 journalists signed the petition.
In September this year, Journalists Against the Protest Law participated in two rounds of hunger strikes as part of a nationwide effort to show solidarity with the over 130 political detainees in Egyptian prisons on hunger strike. “We have many of our colleagues in prison, and we are fighting to be able to express our opinions and write freely,” el-Mahdawy explained.
Locking up foreign journalists
The state has essentially turned constitutional guarantees into frivolities, with its treatment of journalists and the glaring disparities within the penal code. Ratified in January 2014, Egypt’s latest constitution made improvements to press freedom, with Article 65 requiring the protection of thought and opinion, and Article 71 banning imprisonment for “crimes committed by way of publication.”
In mid-October, the prime minister announced that there would be no new laws imposed on journalists. However, three weeks later, a draft law was tabled that would tighten the already restrictive law on reporting on military-related news, and increase penalties if the ban was breached. This comes on the heels of an amendment made to the penal code stiffening regulations on receiving foreign funding with a lot of vague language as to what this pertains. The law purportedly targets terrorism, but would clearly affect civil society, particularly non-governmental organizations. There is also fear that foreign journalists would be targeted.
Given the al-Jazeera case, this doesn't seem too far off the mark. Charged with conspiring with terrorists and harming national security, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Canadian national Mohamed Fahmy were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and Egyptian journalist Baher Mohamed to ten years. The verdict, announced in June, brought widespread international condemnation of the Egyptian state’s clampdown on the press and political dissent in the country.
Al-Sisi tried to distance himself from the case, insisting on the independence of Egypt’s judiciary, and stating that he wished the journalists had been deported after their arrest, rather than being put on trial. He later seemed to have recognized the stain the verdict caused to the state’s image, and in November issued a decree that would allow him, after the approval of cabinet, to deport imprisoned foreigners, which could mean Greste’s repatriation to Australia.
However, the text does not mention holders of dual citizenship. In an interview with Masawry news, Refaat al Sayed, a former chief of justice, stipulated that “Egyptian nationals holding another nationality are to be excluded from the scope of this decree, as the Egyptian state cannot legally hand over its nationals to other states,” meaning that repatriation to Canada for Fahmy seems unlikely.
However, in a recent interview, al-Sisi said that a pardon for the three journalists was under discussion.
Connectivity in the war for freedom
A narrowing narrative undoubtedly affects the political processes in the country. “We are heading into the parliamentary elections. These can’t be free or fair under the current circumstances,” Mansour said. According to el-Mahdawy, “If there aren’t channels for the opposition parties to present themselves, no one will know about them. They’ll only see figures of the regime.”
On a more general level, Mansour stated, “There is a propaganda war dividing the country. Without a free and independent media, you can’t help introduce new ideas to tackle problems.”
Despite the whittling away of dissent under the current regime, journalists feel there remains hope for the future of the profession in the country. “I have a small hope in the people that have seen freedom in the country. It may not be soon, but I think this freedom will come back,” said el-Mahdawy.
“The world is moving forward and we Egypt can’t be left out of the context,” said Yehia, pointing to the internet and social media in particular, as a means of accountability. Qassem also insisted that “connectivity is going to defeat” those in control of the media.
However, social media as an antidote to the state’s clutch on the news may be overly optimistic, given Egypt’s planned proposal to indiscriminately monitor social media. And given this case, it doesn’t seem as if the state security’s surveillance is a bluff.