Redrawing the lines

Redrawing the lines

Journalists want a free press. They oppose imprisonment for publication offences and the suspension of newspapers. Or at least they used to, until the independent and state-owned press became rivals.

Competition between the independent and state-owned press is hardly new. It has been going on for years. Accusations flow back and forth. The state-owned press is staffed by regime lackeys, say independent journalists. The independent press is staffed by agents of foreign powers, is bankrolled by outlawed groups, retort their colleagues working on national papers.

Now, though, the war is no longer one of words. Editors of state owned newspapers have entered the fray. Abdallah Kamal, the editor of Rose El-Youssef, fired the first volley when he demanded that independent editors be “severely punished” for “disseminating rumours and inciting unrest” following a series of scare stories concerning the health of President Hosni Mubarak. Right on cue Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of Al-Dostour will stand trial on just such charges, beginning on 1 October.

A statement from the State Security prosecutor says Eissa will face charges “for publishing false information and rumours in bad faith about the president”s health that harmed the public interest.” The prosecutor”s statement also accuses Eissa of harming the economy after the rumours “caused foreign investors to withdraw investments worth more than $350 million from the stock exchange”.

Eissa was convicted last year of insulting President Mubarak in an article. He remains free pending the outcome of his appeal against the charge.

“The real reason for the furore is that the state can no longer tolerate harsh criticism directed at the president, and it is looking for tools to hush these voices without directly interfering itself; it wants to make it appear, instead, as a crisis between journalists. The fact that the chief editors of the [state-affiliated] press are appointed by the state is evidence enough of where their loyalty lies,” says leading commentator Fahmy Howeidy.

The Higher Press Council, affiliated to the Shura Council and chaired by Safwat El-Sherif, also took action. The council held three meetings this week and decided on Wednesday to file three cases against three independent newspapers, Al-Dostour, Al-Badil and Al-Karama. No similar action has been taken since 1991, when the Higher Press Council filed a complaint with the prosecutor-general against the independent Al-Nabaa. Its editor ended up being sentenced to three years and his newspaper”s licence was revoked though the paper staged a comeback the following year after filing an appeal. Al-Nabaa had published photos exposing the antics of a defrocked monk.

The latest problem crystallised following repeated rumours that President Mubarak was seriously ill. The stories are believed to have originated on the Internet, began to circulate via SMS messages, and were eventually picked up by Al-Dostour, which reported that Mubarak”s health problems had left him “distracted and unable to remember events and names easily”. Eissa attributed the comments on the president”s state of mind to a source close to Mubarak”s medical team.

The ante was upped when Suzanne Mubarak told Al-Arabiya satellite channel that those responsible for such rumours, whether they are newspaper journalists or television programmers, should be held to account. Eissa was interrogated by State Security prosecutors last Wednesday after a State Security investigation officer and a lawyer filed a petition accusing Eissa of negatively affecting the stock market and inciting chaos. After an eight-hour interrogation Eissa was freed, pending his coming trial. Although other newspapers published stories about the president”s health, he is the only editor to be questioned so far.

Eissa started to send ripples across the stagnant waters of the press in 1995 with the launch of the weekly Al-Dostour. It was soon closed down by the authorities, only to be relaunched in 2005 when an emboldened Eissa went further in his fiery articles, systematically breaking down taboos.

Commentators in the state-owned press appear to be pushing the line that the real culprit behind the rumours is a kind of unholy coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood, foreign interests and independent newspapers.

The analysis of Mursi Atallah, board chairman of Al-Ahram and chief editor of Al-Ahram Al-Misaai, is typical: “It was only to be expected,” he wrote, “that after Egypt did not succumb to political pressure and change its position over several issues, and after attempts to tamper with its national unity failed, that its enemies would resort to rumour and use the chaos that prevails in the journalistic field, chaos which allows, under the deceitful cover of press freedom, traditions, ethics and norms to be trampled and red lines to be crossed.”

Wael El-Ibrashi, chief editor of the independent Sawt Al-Umma, refuted Atallah”s allegations. “What red lines?” he asked. “Is it a red line to expose the corruption of prominent figures, to report on demonstrations and the discontent of large segments of society? To report that there is a scarcity of potable water and that prices are going up?”

Sawt Al-Umma, he added, did not carry any stories on Mubarak”s health because it could not confirm them.

Abdallah El-Sinnawi, editor of the Nasserist mouthpiece, Al-Arabi, warned that “those who are against press freedom are not seeking to protect some lost truth, nor do they want to expose corruption. Rather, they want to close channels that had been successfully opened to break taboos, that had won the right to criticise the president, to expose corruption and police torture. To do these things is seen by the regime — backed by the newspapers it owns — as a crime. The health rumour is only an excuse to harass the press…”

Leading columnist Salama Ahmed Salama believes that the fuss is a storm in a teacup. “Matters were blown out of proportion by all sides, the government, the state-owned and the independent press. The intentions of all sides are bad, and it has resulted in this hullabaloo.”

“The independent press should not publish false information, journalists at state-owned newspapers should not pretend other journalists are the enemy and the government should not sit idly waiting for some newspaper to make a mistake and then leap into action that will clearly have negative repercussions,” said Salama.

With Press Syndicate elections for chairman and 12-member council scheduled for November, battle lines are already being drawn. And should Eissa still be free and announce his candidacy, the battle will only become more fierce.