The press plays an important role in shaping and guiding public opinion and thus controls the convictions of people and their reactions to events. Voltaire once said: “Press works on the demolition of the old world so that it can establish a new one”. We have seen leaders who understood the seriousness of the press, and history records for us the saying of a former president of Venezuela: “I would not be afraid if the gate of hell was opened in my face, but I shudder from the pen scratch of a journalist”.
Atef al-Saadawy, managing editor of the Egyptian Al Ahram Democracy Review, discusses the role of the Egyptian press in the past and the present, as well as where it is heading after 27 years of publishing under emergency laws.
As for Egypt, the press is not simply a mirror that reflects the developments occurring in Egyptian society, as is the case in many countries, but it has become an integral part of the calls for political reform, which have escalated in recent times, and a tool for political and social activism currently witnessed in the country. The Egyptian journalist – mainly of some private newspapers – has turned to produce the event rather than being a mere messenger. Contrary to that, the Egyptian journalist in governmental newspapers has turned into a defender of the government’s more repressive and authoritarian policies, even if he does not seem to be convinced of those policies, and even when those policies seem to be – as a matter of logic – indefensible. This is reflected by the fact that the press nowadays stands at the core of the political debate in Egypt. This probably also discloses another issue, which is a problem of definition, since one cannot talk about one press in Egypt, but two different types: a governmental one and a private one. Each of them has its own different world, both in terms of origins, evolution and interests and in terms of the degree of influence, credibility, popularity and political position, etc.
The Egyptian press did, in fact, not know this distinction until July 1952. Until that date, the ownership of all newspapers belonged to individuals and the state had no financial or administrative control over the press, as is the situation today. However, after the July Revolution, the ruling authority and the press grew closer. The press became the most important tool in the hands of the state to implement its political and ideological programmes.
The 1970s witnessed fundamental changes in the Egyptian policy, which opened up the way for political pluralism and the launch of both partisan and independent newspapers, although in a limited and programmed manner. These newspapers sought freedom in line with the role of Egypt as a journalistic leader in the region. Their efforts, however, did not lead to any major changes, and were further hindered by the Emergency Law declared in the wake of the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, and still in force to this day.
The Emergency Law has indeed disrupted the political and journalistic life in Egypt, or at least curbed its development. In the field of journalism, this situation has permitted the authorities to implement many laws and amendments with the purpose of controlling the content of the media and gaining command over the mechanisms of issuing and owning newspapers, while at the same time giving a limited scope for freedom of opinion, stating that “there are still restrictions, barriers and limits that can not be stepped over in the journalistic work in Egypt”. The authorities might have thought that this margin could absorb the momentum of freedom advocates, at least for some time.
Media legislation that restricts freedoms is perhaps the most prominent aspect that must be changed in Egypt. However, the issue here does not stop at the content of laws, but rather begins with the wide fragmentation of those laws. The legal provisions that deal with the printed press are dispersed over many laws, such as Publications Act, the Penal Code, the Press Regulation Law, the State Documents Law, the Civil Servants Law, the Political Parties Law, the Intelligence Law and the ban on reporting on the army and military verdicts. This fragmentation has helped to widen the circle of restrictions that are besieging journalists from every side.
Within the context of these laws, which contravene at least ten articles of the Egyptian Constitution, a pattern of tight control allows the state to turn a blind eye on writings that carry critical views. However, they can also intervene and imprison journalists for long periods or hand out hefty fines that might oblige some small newspapers to stop publishing. Furthermore, they can prevent journalists, especially young ones, from tackling issues that could irritate the authorities.
Moreover, the state controls the number and the quality of newspapers through an extremely complicated bureaucracy imposed by the current laws on the mechanisms of newspaper publication, despite the fact that the constitution allows individuals and political parties to publish freely. At their fourth General Congress in 2004, Egyptian journalists considered that one of the most important conditions for political and media reforms is stressing the right to publish and own newspapers, television and radio stations, promoting online journalism and respecting the right of the media to access the reader.
Launching a newspaper in Egypt requires permission from several governmental bodies such as the government-run Higher Journalism Council, various security services and finally the Council of Ministers. Such permissions are complicated and hard to obtain. They are also conditioned by the payment of large sums of money that ascend up to one million Egyptian pounds (122 375 Euro) for daily newspapers and half a million for weekly publications. The newspaper companies therefore prefer to publish their papers from outside Egypt, from Cyprus in particular. Their staff, headquarters, distribution channels, topics and public, however, are all in Egypt. In this way they manage to rid themselves of legal and financial restrictions, though at the expense of being subjected to the law dealing with foreign press, which allows the Egyptian authorities to confiscate the publication before its distribution or even to ban it entirely, which could mean forcing it to close down. This method may suggest, naturally enough, the existence of opportunities for a pluralistic press, but it does provide the Egyptian authorities with an outdated censorship under the pretext of dealing with foreign press.
Besides all these legal, administrative and security obstacles which hinder the freedom of journalistic work in Egypt, the authorities have added other restrictions on the free flow of information and the access to information. In spite the fact that Egyptians journalists have succeeded, after two years of protests, to remove what was known as Act 93/1995, which admitted the imprisonment of the journalist who published confidential documents as well as the civil servant who provided them, tenacious administrative obstacles still stand in the way of the press, on the one hand hampering its work and message, and on the other hand leading some journalists into the trap of misinformation, only to be penalized with imprisonment or heavy fines.
In its annual report for 2003, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) describes the laws on press and publications as coarse and ambiguous, maintaining that they represent a major restraint on the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It goes on to say that these laws have allowed the Egyptian government to close a number of newspapers like Al-Dustour and Al Sh’ab, and to put a large number of journalists behind bars on various charges, for the most part libel and insult. Egyptians reformers, however, claim that Emergency Law has deliberately mixed up these charges with the right to criticize institutions or official and public personalities.
Examples of this confusion are numerous, of course. The latest was a series of jail and fine sentences against journalists in 2007. In May, Al-Jazeera reporter Huwaida Taha was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of twenty thousand Egyptian pounds (2450 Euro) for “damaging national interests and smearing the reputation of the country”, through her reporting on the torture of prisoners in Egyptian prisons. In September, four editors-in-chief of the Al-Dustour, Saut al-Umma, Al-Karama and Al-Fajr newspaper were sentenced to prison for one year with a fine of twenty thousand Egyptians pounds, while a lawsuit was filed against Al-Dustour editor-in-chief Ibrahim Issa at the Supreme State Security Emergency Court, after his pen had apparently been a threat to national security! At the end of 2007, the editor-in-chief of the Al-Wafd newspaper, together with one of his journalists, was sentenced to prison for one month. The situation deteriorated to the point of an advisory opinion, fatwa, being issued on the necessity of whipping journalists from time to time! The charges are the same in all cases: damaging the higher interests of the state, disseminating false news, insulting the Head of State, and the like.
The opposition press, therefore, is the major responsible for the threat to national interests. Is it really the press that pushed nine million Egyptians to unemployment? Is it the press which pushed 35 percent of Egypt’s population to living in slums? Is it the articles of Ibrahim Issa, Abdel Halim Qandil, Adel Hammouda and Anwar Al Hawari that forced four million families to a life without shelter? Are those writings really responsible for the spread of illiteracy among 18 million Egyptians? Are opposition newspapers the cause of the rise in prices, the deterioration of the level of education, the degradation in cultural conditions and the spread of corruption amidst senior officials, indeed?
The Egyptian Al Ahram Democracy Review is a political quarterly publication launched in 2001 by the Al-Ahram Foundation.
culled from The Arab Press Network