Year Ender: 2010 ‘bad year’ for press freedom, say critics

The year 2010 was a bad one for journalistic freedom in Egypt, and, according to the forecasts of some media analysts, 2011 promises to be no better–if not actually worse. Watchdogs and rights groups claimed that the country's media and press freedoms deteriorated markedly in the run-up to this year's parliamentary elections.

But will this repressive atmosphere persist until presidential elections slated for late next year? Several observers believe it will.

“2010 was a very bad year for journalism and press freedom," said Mohamed Abdel Quddous, secretary of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate’s liberties committee. “And there are no indicators that next year will be any better. On the contrary, freedoms look set to decline even further."

International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt very low this year in terms of press freedom, putting it at 143rd place out of 175 countries. It also labeled Egypt an "Enemy of the Internet" in its annual report, which, notably, was issued only weeks before the controversial parliamentary elections.

But the media had been subject to pressures months before the 28 November elections and the 5 December runoffs. In mid-September, two prominent television talk-show hosts, Amr Adeeb and Ibrahim Eissa, were abruptly taken off air. The private Saudi-owned Orbit Satellite Channel, meanwhile, which hosted Adeeb's talk-show, "Cairo Today," was shut down altogether on 18 September.

Shortly afterwards on 5 October, Eissa, who had been editor-in-chief of prominent opposition daily Al-Dostour, was sacked–reportedly over his intention to publish of an article about reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei. Eissa’s writings are still being posted on Al-Dostour's alternate website.

Then, on October 11, the Ministry of Communications issued new licensing restrictions and fees for media outlets and mass SMS service providers. Furthermore, on October 19, the Ministry of Information ordered the suspension of 12 Islamic satellite channels and issued warnings to 20 others. These channels were later shut under the pretext that they were inciting religious sectarianism. A total of 17 such channels have been suspended since September.

And in mid-November, the state-appointed High Elections Commission issued regulations stipulating that only journalists syndicate members–carrying permits from the Ministry of Information–be allowed to cover the parliamentary polls. During the voting, unlicensed journalists and photographers were harassed by police, prevented from taking photos, threatened with arrest and–in some cases–detained.

On May 11, parliament extended Egypt’s 29-year-old Emergency Law for another two years, although its scope was ostensibly limited to crimes related to terrorism and narcotics. "No matter what the authorities claim, a police-state will never be willing or able to protect press freedoms,” said Abdel Quddous.

But the news isn’t all bad. “One positive development in the field of journalism that we have noticed this year–and which we expect to grow in the years ahead–is the rise of social media, citizen journalism and blogging," Abdel Quddous noted.

"Citizen Journalism has proven pivotal in delivering messages and images from the street,” he added. “This form of reporting is increasingly serving to expose rights violations and police abuses, along with important incidents and events.”

“It’s also far more difficult for the authorities to control or censor,” he went on to assert. “Technology is evolving, and the world of journalism is evolving along with it."

Several media outlets have noted that, although Egypt's mainstream media was largely muzzled ahead of elections, the blog-o-sphere is now growing and thriving as an independent source of news information. Blogger Kareem Amer, who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2007 for defaming Islam and slandering President Hosni Mubarak, was released on 17 November of this year. Upon his release, Amer expressed his determination to continue blogging and speaking his mind on political issues.

2010 also witnessed thetragic death of 28-year-old blogger Khaled Saeed, who had posted videos of policemen in Alexandria–apparently dividing the spoils of a recent drug-bust–on his blog. He was found dead outside an Internet cafe on 6 June. Local bloggers were among the first to break the story. Other incidents of alleged torture and police brutality were also exposed by bloggers this year, before the mainstream media or rights organizations had reported on them.

Abdel Quddous expressed hope that Egypt's independent judiciary would continue to limit the ruling regime's politicized crackdown on the media. On 27 November, for example, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled against the new government-decreed SMS regulations. And in a rare victory for media freedom, the government announced on 7 December–immediately after the parliamentary polls–that it would cancel the restrictions earlier imposed on SMS service providers.

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