Egypt’s Press: More free, still fettered

Egypt’s Press: More free, still fettered

The court complex on Galaa Street in Downtown Cairo is one of the more dispiriting edifices of the Egyptian justice system. The graying, corpulent building is a warren of dank and cramped courtrooms, leaking pipes and crumbling walls. The general effect is an atmosphere that would inspire dread in all but the most plucky of defendants.

It was with a sort of foreboding then, that correspondents went there on October 1st 2007, to cover the first hearing of the trial of Ibrahim Eissa, editor of al-Dostour newspaper, and one of the Egyptian government’s most lively critics. He had been charged with “endangering national stability.” He had apparently done so through a series of articles published during the previous month about the health (or otherwise) of 79-year old Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s President.It had been a grim few weeks for Egyptian journalists. [See Lawrence Pintak”s article in this issue on more Arab press developments]  Seven days earlier, three staff at the opposition daily al-Wafd were sentenced to two years in prison for articles written about members of the judiciary. On September 13th, Mr Eissa himself, along with Wael Ibrashi, editor of Sowt al-Ummah, Adel Hammouda, editor of Al-Fajr and Abdel Halim Qandil, former editor of Al-Karama, were all given jail sentences, subject to appeal, for “insulting the president.” This latest case seemed to be crisis point in a much longer trend.

Human Rights lawyer Gamal Eid, who attended Mr Eissa’s hearing, estimates that around 500 such cases are brought against Egyptian journalists and writers every year.[i]

But aside from the recent spate of state bullying, in the last three or four years it has been much noted that something fundamental has happened to the newspaper business in Egypt. More than at any time in recent history, journalists now feel at liberty to openly criticize the regime and its personages. This new-found liberty has accelerated in parallel with the recent stop-go political liberalization project in Egypt, which began with a public outpouring of discontent as the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.But by the autumn of 2007, confrontation between the government and a once-obedient profession had reached critical proportions. In these last years of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, Egypt’s independent newspaper proprietors are more acutely feeling the contradictions between an active free press and authoritarian government. In Egypt, the current discussion of press freedom centers on the state of the law that allows government to harass, manipulate and silence the media as it chooses. 

Press freedom, rather like its sibling democracy itself, exists nowhere in a perfect form. The exigencies of the constitutions of states, cultural norms, vested interests, and the security of nation-states, all variously impinge upon the right to say what you want where you want.The following is an attempt to work out how that ‘freedom’ is constituted in Egypt, how it is now at risk, and what might be done to safeguard it.

Freedom of a sort
Mr. Eissa’s tribulations come during one of the high points of press freedom in the fifty-four year history of the Arab Republic. Newsstands in the capital groan under the weight of the myriad of state and privately-owned journals, catering from tastes ranging from the somber to the salacious. More importantly, the level of criticism of government and government policy that now exists, if taken as a litmus test of media freedoms, indicates that the press is more free than at almost any time in recent history. Local observers, commenting on the breaking of taboos such as direct criticism of the President and the President’s family, not to mention the exposés of official corruption and malfeasance that have become stock-in-trade of the independent press, say that the traditional deference of Egyptian society towards its masters is dead.[ii]

While that may be overstating the case a little, privately-owned journals, in particular the likes of al-Fajr, and al-Dostour, have become vibrant and entertaining means of expressing common disaffection with government and authority. In their bid for one or two pounds from the ordinary Egyptian’s pocket, these papers compete for a share of their discontent. The baiting of senior government officials (at one point in 2006 I remember steel-magnate and NDP-grandee Ahmed Ezz being the constant front-page target of both of the above) and the exposure of abuses perpetrated against citizens by the state, particularly torture, has introduced an important level of accountability into the Egyptian polity, even if the way in which some of the private press does so is frequently sensationalist.[iii]

The emergence of the very respectable daily al-Masry al-Youm in 2004 was widely heralded as a revelation. The first issue, in June, introduced both higher journalistic standards and an independent intellectual rigor to the business of reporting Egyptian society and politics. Since then, it has largely supplanted the turgid al-Ahram as necessary reading for any observer wishing to keep abreast of local issues.If seen in this short-term frame, the recent crackdown on independent and opposition editors seems like an inexplicable regression.  But in the wider scope of the history and structure of the Egyptian press, the current crackdown seems less of an aberration, and more like a reversion to the restrictive norm. 

Taken as a whole, the Egyptian press is an ungainly creature. Heavily loss-making state-owned papers (the “national” press led by the al-Ahram Establishment)[iv], which are often in control of the few printing presses available, exist alongside privately-owned but foreign-registered journals that come under the heading of the “Cyprus Press” (where, once upon a time, most were registered). The most prominent example of the ‘Cypriot’ papers is Ibrahim Eissa’s al-Dostour, founded in 1995.