Egypt’s emboldened press now feeling the backlash
With lively independent newspapers and rollicking TV political talk shows, Egypt’s journalists in recent years have pushed the boundaries of what you can say about the government in this authoritarian nation – so much so that they grew confident that growing press freedoms were irreversible.
Now the backlash has come, with a media crackdown in this top U.S. ally that included the ousting of a prominent, muckraking editor.
And journalists have discovered that the foundation of their greater freedoms – the millionaire businessmen who opened up a generation of private media, full of criticism of authority – are just as vulnerable to government pressure as their predecessors.
The removal of Ibrahim Eissa as editor of the Al-Dustour newspaper and the silencing of several TV programs comes at a particularly sensitive time for the normally sclerotic Egyptian politics. Bruising parliamentary elections are just a month away, and the country is gripped by uncertainty over who will succeed 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has yet to announce if he will run in next year’s presidential contest.
Authorities want “calm and obedience to pave the way for parliament and presidential elections and achieve a quiet transition of power,” prominent columnist Salama Ahmed Salama wrote about the crackdown.
“They want the loud, blaring voices to stop upsetting the seats of power,” he said.
For nearly 50 years, media in Egypt was monopolized by the government. Staid state newspapers and television trotted out the daily activities of the president, fed a stream of state propaganda and, more broadly, were met with yawns by the public. The only alternative were the mouthpiece newspapers of the state-sanctioned – in fact, state-financed – opposition parties, which stayed within strict boundaries.
But in the early part of the decade, businessmen were allowed to start founding their own newspapers and satellite TV stations, part of the government’s economic liberalization program. The new media outlets brought a fresh approach and professionalism, tackling controversial issues and doing investigations that held officials to task.
Journalists are barred by their own union’s bylaws from owning their own papers – or else they lose union membership – so businessmen seemed a perfect alternative. With the strengthening private sector behind them, journalists began to believe the genie of press freedom could not be put back in the bottle.
But Eissa’s dismissal – soon after Al-Dustour was bought by two businessmen, including the local manufacturer of Viagra – showed how wrong they were. It served as a reminder that the new wealthy class of financiers created by economic liberalization ultimately owe their success to the government and are leery of challenging it.
“Businessmen are not free politically and economically, so how do we expect them to protect freedom of the press,” Eissa told The Associated Press. “Everybody is under the ruling regime’s fingers.”
Television talk shows have also felt the pressure. Orbit TV’s 12-year-old “Cairo Today” went off air last week, followed soon after by the entire network itself.
Ten other TV networks, most with religious programming, were shut off the air and 20 others received warnings of closure by Egypt’s main satellite operator. Officials accused them of spreading Islamic extremism, though critics say the move was timed to cover up the crackdown on political talk shows and newspapers.
The country’s telecommunications regulator also canceled permits for companies providing direct satellite news feeds from Egypt, requiring them to reapply for them in apparent effort to control who broadcasts live from streets. The regulator set new rules limiting the sending of mass text messages, a tool often used by activists to mobilize their followers.
The businessmen themselves freely admit they are no defenders of the press.
“If I get a phone call telling me to shut Dream TV down, I will do so. Am I going to fight the state? I can’t,” real estate tycoon Ahmed Bahgat told the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, a daily whose 2004 founding sparked the wave of new independent publications.
Bahgat is one of the major shareholders in the newspaper and owns Dream TV satellite channel, whose widely popular political talk shows earn much higher ratings than anything on state television.
He acknowledged he almost fired his well known presenter Mona el-Shazli in April after she interviewed the new leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood organization on her talk show, “10 in the Evening.”
Telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris, also a shareholder of Al-Masry Al-Youm and owner of his own satellite channels, said he has to be careful not to step on the regime’s toes.
“I don’t want to upset anybody because someone might come and say, ‘Something went wrong on your station,’ and this will have repercussions,” he told the newspaper, which has given only muted coverage to the Eissa situation.
Hisham Kassem, who was Al-Masry Al-Youm’s deputy head until he resigned in 2006, believes he may have hit on an alternative way of financing. He’s planning a new privately owned daily, Al-Karnak, in which each shareholder will be allowed at most 10 percent of the shares to weaken interference.
Kassem says businessmen’s interference goes beyond politics to commercial interests. “They would ask me to run stories attacking some of their opponents or they ask me to let their friends write a column. You name it,” he said.
But journalists worry the days of stirring up authority are gone.
“Recess is over, even if you haven’t heard the bell ring,” wrote Bilal Fadel, a columnist in Al-Masry Al-Youm after Orbit TV was shut down. “In this part of the world, the principal has the right to cancel recess forever.”