Egypt Media Threatened With More Restrictions
Egypt Media Threatened With More Restrictions
Friday, September 12,2008 07:40
CAIRO -- Egypt"s parliament is due to examine a new broadcasting bill in November that is of growing concern for journalists and press rights groups in the country and abroad. Broadcast journalists are already under severe threat from the government, with censorship running high.

Several Egyptian production companies working with foreign satellite TV stations have already been censored this year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported.

The press freedom organization said that the Egyptian government is continuously attempting to curtail free expression through new and innovative means.

"Despite a level of diversity that is rare in the region, the Egyptian media must endure the yoke of political control, like the media in other Arab countries with authoritarian regimes," said RSF.

The bill, which was submitted this past June, is creating worries among broadcast journalists. It calls for new prison penalties of between one month and three years and would make it possible for reporters to be prosecuted for "attacking social peace, national unity, public order and society"s values."

If passed, it would establish a national broadcasting regulatory agency to be headed by information ministry officials and members of the state security apparatus. This new agency would be given the power to remove a news media"s license.

Television stations have been under attack by Cairo since the beginning of the year. In February, Egypt led a charge in the Arab League to adopt a charter that restricts the freedom of satellite channels and gives governments the ability to sanction program content deemed offensive.

Only Lebanon and Qatar"s foreign ministers voted against the measure.

This translates into more censorship than before, with Arab governments uniting in ensuring what they don"t want people to watch stays away from their citizens" television sets.

In Egypt, TV stations that want to transmit via the Nilesat beacon -- the most widespread satellite network in the country -- must obtain Cairo"s approval. Already, programs are being banned, the most notable of which was a series by American government-funded Al Hurra network on youth and democracy in Egypt.

The program "Youth and Politics" was to be shown as part of the region-wide "Eye on Democracy" series.

Related, the privately-owned Al-Hiwar TV station was dropped by Nilesat on April 1 without reason, highlighting that Egypt is serious in its efforts to limit critical material from reaching the masses.

The criticism comes as an Egyptian court sentenced on Wednesday Ahmed Bakr Seleem, the editor of Cairo Today, a daily independent newspaper, to one year in prison for publishing without a license.

This is where censorship begins, says Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

"Just look at how the government is controlling everything, including which newspapers are allowed to publish and which ones are not," he told the Middle East Times.

In order to obtain a publishing license in Egypt the Supreme Press Council must approve. The council is part of the Upper House of Parliament -- the Shura Council -- and is largely dominated by members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

"The government is doing its best to end any chance there was of a country with a free press," added Eid.

Seleem is not the first journalist to be convicted on such charges. Most famously, leading Egyptian independent editor, Ibrahim Eissa of Al-Dustour, has seen case after case brought against him. In what local press called "Black September," the Al- Dustour editor and colleagues Wael al-Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Abdel Halim Qandil of Al-Karama and Adel Hammouda of the weekly Al-Fagr, were given one-year prison terms.

In total, 11 journalists received jail sentences in September 2007 for charges that varied from insulting President Hosni Mubarak"s party to insulting the president himself.

Al-Wafd Editor Anwar al-Hawary, who also has been the subject of the Egyptian government"s crackdown, said he hopes outside pressures can influence Cairo"s current campaign against journalists.

"I hope that other governments, maybe the United States, will come to the aid of our profession and pressure the government here to change its ways," he said.

The United States, he says, has failed to deliver in the past.

"We don"t see America as a solution any more, not since (George W.) Bush doesn"t put pressure on Mubarak to change things," added Hawary.

With more journalists facing prison terms and an increase in the ability to work, Egyptian media are waiting on parliament"s decision this fall in order to gauge what the next steps will be. Many reporters have expressed their hope that a victory by Barack Obama in the upcoming American election will give new light to an ever-fading freedom.