Muzzled In Egypt

I walked outside my residence in Cairo Sunday morning to the sight of hundreds of soldiers and riot police.

Sent to the city’s center, this army was ordered to preserve calm as scores of Egyptian journalists marched and protested in front of the country’s parliament building. These writers and broadcasters were responding to proposed constitutional amendments that would widely permit the imprisonment of plucky journalists, raise monetary fines for newspapers employing them and, most egregiously, make illegal the direct criticism of President Hosni Mubarak as well as foreign heads of state.

Writers could be fined up to $5,000 for such violations – a substantial fine in a country where the annual per capita income is $3,900. The law would also criminalize the publication of certain financial information from within the government, a measure certain to maintain or exacerbate levels of corruption and nepotism.

This law will “shut mouths and break pens,” said Sahar Ramadan, a journalist from al-Wafd, an opposition paper, who was reported to have attended the rally. “Criminals will remain on the streets, while journalists will go to jail.”

I shook my head as I timidly passed the armed forces on my morning walk near Maydan al-Tahrir – ironically Arabic for “liberation square.” Not just to keep order, the militia was called in to make sure that demonstrating journalists did not speak too freely. Two soldiers from these very ranks currently stand accused of torturing an Egyptian journalist at a public demonstration several weeks ago. Although it may seem like a triumph that this abuse did not go unnoticed, it is sadly true that it most often does.

Egypt is the most populous nation in the Middle East, and serves as the worst example of the region’s pathetic treatment of journalists.

Measures such as the new law before Egypt’s parliament place writers in a climate of fear and are the reason the journalistic watchdog group Freedom House ranks the Middle East as the world’s worst region in terms of freedom of expression. Egypt is listed among the main contributors to the region’s poor placement.

According to Freedom House’s 2005 Global Press Survey, Israel is the only country in the Middle East with free media.

Not a single member of the Arab League was listed as having a free environment for journalists. Out of 194 countries included in the survey, Egypt could climb no higher than 145th, finishing alongside Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The reign of Mubarak has done nothing to broaden the freedom of mass media. He appoints the editors of the country’s three largest newspapers. Egyptian journalists are vulnerable to harassment that includes beatings, while foreign writers can be deported. Egyptian religious clerics peruse bookstores for volumes they deem impermissible – works that are subsequently confiscated by the government.

“Mubarak” is Arabic for “blessed,” but while he may have been blessed during the 25 years of his despotic reign, those living under his regime wishing to express themselves are most certainly cursed. In 2004, right around the time he was winning international praise for holding landmark presidential elections, The Blessed promised his country that he would abolish prison sentences for journalists. They would no longer spend time in Egypt’s dank jails for transgressions such as “libel,” which rarely amounted to more than criticizing someone with considerable power.

Such rhetoric was a sham, however, and now journalists in Egypt find themselves worse off than ever.

Joseph Pulitzer wrote: “Our republic and its press will rise and fall together.” Modernity in Egypt is being dragged down by a government that is pushing journalists off the summit of free speech and watching them plummet.

Justin Martin, 26, is a U.S. Education Department foreign language and area studies scholar in Cairo and is a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact him at [email protected].

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