Elections monitor: Media restrictions; record campaign spending

The Egyptian government’s recent decision to shut down several satellite channels and place further restrictions on the media has raised domestic and international concern over freedom of expression in the run-up to parliamentary elections late next month.

Two opinion pieces, one in state-run Rose al-Youssef magazine and another in official daily Al-Ahram, defended the moves.

In the latter, Faten Abdel Razik wrote that freedom of expression has limits when it causes harm to individuals or the community, and that it does not mean allowing coverage that incites sectarian tension among the public. While it is difficult for media professionals to countenance the closure of satellite channels, Abdel Razik argues that the transgressions committed by the channels in question cannot be excused. 

In Rose al-Youssef, Nabil Nagib Salama pointed to Minister of Information Anas al-Fiqi’s contention that the measures should not be viewed as attempts by the government to restrict liberties. Such allegations, the minister noted, should be rejected since the issue is one of preserving national security and avoiding sectarian strife.

“Al-Fiqi’s plan to restrict freedom of expression on satellite channels,” trumpeted the headlines of opposition weekly Al-Arabi, mouthpiece of the Arab Nasserist Party. In a report occupying almost an entire page, Al-Sayyid al-Ghadban conceded that certain satellite channels–including those that incite sectarianism and contain sexual content–were not acceptable from either an ethical, social or national standpoint. Banning these channels, however, should not be used as cover for restricting freedoms of expression, he wrote.

Al-Ghadban went on to point to a number of recent media restriction enacted under the guise of shutting down religious channels. These decisions included banning news bulletins and news tickers by some channels without prior government approval; monitoring internet content to prevent publication of material critical of the government; and preventing satellite channels from providing live coverage of certain issues by confining the use of SNG units–required for making live broadcasts–to the state-run Media Production City.

Al-Ghadban went on to point out that the government had refused to grant satellite channels permission to own SNG channels. Only a handful of easy-to-control private companies had been given permission to do so, he noted, albeit with restrictions on the issues that can be covered. The writer believes that government control of SNG units represents the most dangerous of the aforementioned measures, since this will prevent satellite channels from providing live coverage of anticipated incidents of electoral fraud.

Al-Ghadban concluded by predicting that those companies providing live coverage via SNG units would soon be told not to allow reporters from foreign Arabic-language channels to use the units. He also predicted that reporters would be prevented from covering hotly-contested districts in upcoming elections and that strict security measures would be put in place to ensure that all cell phones capable of capturing and transmitting images would be detected and confiscated.

Opposition daily Al-Wafd, mouthpiece of the liberal Wafd Party, meanwhile, reported on its front page that the Los Angeles Times had accused the Egyptian government of pressuring newspaper editors, silencing columnists and repressing talk shows and electronic media outlets.

In other news, Al-Arabi reported that a total of LE19 billion would be spent on electoral campaigns this year, according to a study conducted by the Center for Economic and Political Studies. Expenditures include campaign materials, as well as vote-buying and bribes, the report noted.

A front-page opinion piece in Rose al-Youssef, meanwhile, questioned how the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement obtained the funding for its candidates’ electoral campaigns. According to a brotherhood source quoted in independent daily Al-Shorouk, each of the group’s administrative bureaus, located in different governorates, had opened the door for campaign donations.

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