Under new leadership, media face old oppressive policies

More than a month ago, the Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpiece newspaper coined two dichotomous categories of media.

One was “the black media,” or local TV channels and newspapers that strive “to reproduce the old regime” and “spread lies” about newly elected Islamists. The other, “the white media,” strives to “pursue the goals of the revolution” and endorse the Muslim Brotherhood’s Renaissance Project.

Under each category is a list of TV hosts and newspapers. For many observers, this categorization was instead based on whether particular media outlets show support or hostility to the nation’s most influential civilian political force. The discourse has alarmed advocates of freedom of expression, and underscored the potential of a crackdown on critics of Islamists.

As President Mohamed Morsy is sweepingly establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in regard to the military elite and different state institutions, this discourse finds solid ground to materialize in actual policies. Since last week, the Brothers have sent shock waves through the journalist community. They unveiled controversial provisions on press freedom that they seek to include in the constitution, and mobilized an actual crackdown on allegedly anti-Brotherhood private media.

Disappointing constitution

Recently, the Brotherhood-led assembly tasked with writing the constitution has drawn the attention of most journalists, as one of its subsidiary committees disclosed proposed articles pertaining to freedom of expression.

Many of these articles have provoked an angry reaction from journalists, which forced the constitution’s architects to introduce some modifications. Last week, the Rights and Liberties Committee invited representatives from the Supreme Press Council and advocates of press freedom to share the latest version of constitutional provisions regarding the media.

Salah Issa, a member of the press council who was present at the meeting, said the committee had put forward at least three controversial clauses that fell short of meeting journalists’ demands.

First, the committee drafted: “Freedom of thought and opinion are guaranteed. Each person shall have the right to express his opinion orally, in writing, in pictures or in other forms.” However, this right was curbed by another fragment reading, “as long as the privacy and the rights of others are not hurt,” Issa wrote Friday in Al-Masry Al-Youm.

For Issa, this addition opens the door for circumventing freedom of expression.

The constitution’s architects also drafted an article guaranteeing media freedom and prohibiting censorship, suspension or cancellation of newspapers “as long as their objectives and means are legitimate.”

Issue argued this gives “the legislature the right to practice all evil deeds against the media under the pretext that their objectives are not legitimate.”

Finally, the committee altered an article proposed by the Supreme Press Council to ensure the independence of government-owned media from “different state institutions and political groups.” The constitution’s authors adopted the proposal after omitting that last phrase, listing which parties state media would be autonomous from.

By omitting “different state institutions,” the Brotherhood-led assembly might be aiming to keep the public press under the control of Parliament’s upper house, the Shura Council, Issa alleged.

“The Freedom and Justice Party has a wing that did not see the old regime as a despotic one that should be replaced by a new, democratic one. On the contrary, this wing wants to replace the same despotism,” Issa told Egypt Independent last week.

“This wing wants the Shura Council to maintain the ownership of the state press in order to liberate it from NDP control and bring it under the FJP’s control,” he added, referring to the formerly ruling National Democratic Party.

The recent appointments in the state press might prove Issa’s point. Ignoring the demands of journalists to liberate the press from the legislature, the FJP-dominated Shura Council announced Wednesday the names of the new editors of state-owned papers. Many journalists complained the new appointees were selected for their predisposition to comply with the new government, rather than their professional caliber.

Given the Brothers’ robust electoral machinery, the group is expected to maintain the same weight in representative bodies in any upcoming elections. However, FJP leaders find these speculations far-fetched.

Amr Darrag, secretary general of the Constituent Assembly and an FJP leader, dismissed Issa’s fears as “ungrounded.” He argued there is no guarantee the Brothers would maintain the same majority in the next Shura Council and that Parliament’s upper house might itself be abrogated in the new constitution.

The constitution’s architects have also ignored an article suggested by the Supreme Press Council that would prohibit the imprisonment of journalists except in cases of “crimes that hurt people’s sexual lives or foment hate and discrimination on religious, gender or sectarian bases.”

Before dropping this article, the committee had proposed a different version with a long list of exceptions, including libel and defamation.

The move had elicited the stir of most journalists, who argued such an article would be a major setback, especially since the deposed president abolished prison sentences for libelous reporting in 2006.

“That was quite paradoxical,” said Ragai al-Merghany, general coordinator of the National Coalition for Freedom of the Media, an alliance of human rights groups and journalists. He said under Hosni Mubarak, the prison sentence could be abolished in defamation and libel cases. But now, protection against it can’t be enshrined in the constitution.

Eventually, the committee dropped the whole article, said Merghany, who was also present at last week’s meeting. He said he does not see how such a move is acceptable.

“That does not mean that they take out the article altogether and deny journalists protection against jail sentences,” Merghany added.

Merghany demanded the adoption of the original article proposed by the Supreme Press Council. Besides the prohibition of imprisonment except in rare cases, the article denies the public prosecutor the right to mobilize against journalists on behalf of state officials.

“We do not want the public prosecutor to intervene with press crimes. Let the person affected go directly to court and file a lawsuit. … We have had terrible experiences with former prosecutors who fabricated cases against journalists and jailed them,” said Merghany.

“The public prosecutor is subdued to the hegemony of the political regime. He is used to execute the political will of the ruling party,” he contended.

Darrag affirmed that the articles discussed have not yet been finalized and said further changes might be introduced.

“In general, there is nothing final as of now. It is all about propositions,” he said, suggesting that further journalists’ demands might be incorporated into the final outcome.

He said the process is still in progress.

“I am calling on journalists to show some patience, and at the end they will find a very satisfactory [outcome]. The independence of the media is the demand of the whole society,” Darrag said.

Private media under attack

But Darrag’s assurances aren’t relieving journalists.

“We are very worried and we do not trust what this committee will come up with,” said Abeer al-Saady, undersecretary of the Journalists Syndicate.

“Things are developing in a direction that does not favor freedom of expression,” added Saady, referring to the ongoing lawsuits targeting the private media and FJP discourse showing hostility to journalists.

On Saturday, a court upheld a prosecutor’s order to confiscate some issues of Al-Dostour newspaper, which has been one of the staunchest critics of the Brotherhood. The privately owned daily is being investigated on grounds of “fueling sedition” and “harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law,” according to state news agency MENA.

The incident came on the heels of the closure of privately owned satellite channel Al-Faraeen after several complaints had been filed against its host, Tawfiq Okasha. Okasha was accused of inciting the murder of Morsy and supporting a military coup.

Hundreds of Brotherhood members rallied Wednesday outside Media Production City, which houses most private channels’ studios, to protest anti-Morsy media. Protesters smashed newspaper editor and TV host Khaled Salah’s car as he drove into the complex.

Journalists decried the rally as an attempt to “terrorize the media” and to reproduce the old regime’s policies.

Darrag denied the Brotherhood was involved in the attacks.

“What is the evidence that it is the Brothers or FJP members who attacked journalists?” he asked.

He defended the right to protest media practices.

“Freedom of expression is not only for the writer but also for the people who are being written about,” he contended.

Earlier this month, Morsy further antagonized many journalists by insisting that the Cabinet include an information minister, ignoring resilient calls to end this position. Reporters have long argued such a post only exists in totalitarian regimes.

“We thought that the revolution would end our painful struggle and that we would acquire our freedom easily,” said Gamal Fahmy, a member of the Journalists Syndicate board. “But we found out that we are required to engage in fierce battles against dark forces.”

Morsy selected Salah Abdel Maqsoud, a Brotherhood member, for the post — reinforcing suspicions that the group seeks to tighten its group over media.

“Most probably, the information minister will push the [state media] to stress the dignity of the president and present him as the nation’s leader, and hence he will recreate a new tyrant,” Issa said.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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