Alarming threats to press freedom prompt journalists’ backlash

With more uncertainty surrounding the future of press freedom in the Muslim Brotherhood-led political order, journalists have yet to consolidate a collective response, with divergent outlooks and a divided syndicate standing as obstacles.

As soon as Mohamed Morsy ascended to the presidency, several developments exacerbated fears that the new leader and his group sought to reproduce deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s media-unfriendly policies. Last month, Islam Afify, editor-in-chief of the privately owned Al-Dostour newspaper, was referred to criminal court on grounds of spreading false news and humiliating the president.

Meanwhile, Al-Faraeen satellite channel was closed down with its main host, Tawfiq Okasha, facing the same fate as Afify, and charges of “inciting the murder” of the president. Shortly after, Abdel Halim Qandil — editor of the privately owned Sawt al-Umma newspaper and a staunch Mubarak opponent — was referred to the State Security Prosecution after two lawyers belonging to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party filed a complaint accusing him of libel and insulting Morsy.

These prosecutions happened amid controversial deliberations within the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly over articles related to freedom of expression. So far, the constitution’s architects have put forward at least three controversial clauses.

According to the latest draft, the Constituent Assembly Rights and Liberties Subcommittee has proposed an article stipulating a jail sentence for convicts of libel and defamation. Another proposed article fails to meet journalists’ demands to liberate the state-owned press from Parliament control.

The Constituent Assembly members also wrote: “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 … .”

All these propositions have yet to be voted on in the general assembly before they are set for a public referendum.

“There is an attempt by the majority to stretch its hegemony over the media,” says media expert Yasser Abdel Aziz. “Journalists are required to exercise pressure in order to thwart such an attempt and build a good media system.”

A torn syndicate

However, not everyone believes Egypt’s journalists are capable of achieving these goals.

“The journalist community is not in its best shape,” Ragaei al-Merghany, general coordinator of the National Coalition for Freedom of the Media, an alliance of human rights groups and journalists, told Egypt Independent. “The syndicate’s board and head bear the responsibility. They abandoned their actual duties and concentrated on political conflicts. They surrendered to the political polarization that exists in society.”

Instead of defending the interests of journalists, Merghany adds, the syndicate is torn between two ideological groups: the Muslim Brotherhood and non-Islamists.

Under law, the Journalists Syndicate stands as the main entity in charge of defending journalists’ rights and freedoms, and of promoting professional standards. However, ongoing internal feuds have cast doubts over the professional association’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Tension constantly erupts between the head of the syndicate, Mamdouh al-Waly, who has ties to the Brotherhood, and the non-Islamist majority of the syndicate’s 12-member board. Waly’s detractors complain that he uses the syndicate to further the Brothers’ interests.

The syndicate’s failure to form a unified stance on Parliament’s control of the state-owned press was one of the early signs of the schism.

While Waly had supported the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council’s decision to appoint editors of state-owned media, some members of the syndicate’s board took the matter to court, demanding that the legislature take its hands off. Meanwhile, Waly’s detractors on the board issued a statement denouncing his performance.

Last week, the tension culminated in verbal and physical violence between Waly and a syndicate board member, Hesham Younes, during a meeting. Gamal Fahmy, syndicate undersecretary, says the clash came on the heels of Waly’s request that the board issue a statement condemning the performance of Al-Dostour. “[Issuing such a statement] would be like informing the authorities about our colleagues,” says Fahmy.

Waly could not secure a majority of votes to pass such a statement, Fahmy tells Egypt Independent. Meanwhile, he admits that the syndicate is not doing enough to defend freedom of expression, laying the blame squarely on Waly. At press time, Waly could not be reached for comment.

However, Suleiman Saleh, professor at the Cairo University School of Mass Communication and a former MP representing the FJP, defends Waly, arguing that the remnants of the old regime and some leftists within the syndicate “are making trouble in order to sideline” him.

“The syndicate’s head was chosen by the majority of journalists. Thus the minority should not impose its will by force on Egyptian journalists,” he adds. “[Waly] is acting with a lot of concern for the future of the press and seeks to secure its freedom.”

Beyond the syndicate

For Fahmy, the struggle does not have to be confined to the syndicate’s premises. “We have been dealing with journalists outside the syndicate. It is no longer important to use the syndicate as the formal framework,” he says.

He is also co-founder of the National Committee for Freedom of Expression. The newly formed entity was the outcome of an extraordinary meeting during which newspaper editors, TV hosts and novelists decided to form a bloc to defend freedom of speech. At press time, the committee was expected to convene to discuss different forms of protests.

Fahmy says the committee might call for a public conference to raise awareness of press freedom, and intends to take bolder moves — including the suspension of newspapers and the blackout of TV channels — if more violations are committed by the government.

He adds that the new coalition considered halting newspapers in response to the court’s decision to remand Afify in custody until the next hearing, set for 16 September.

Last week, a Giza criminal court enforced a clause allowing the pre-trial detention of journalists accused of insulting the president. But on the same day, Morsy issued a decree canceling this clause and effectively releasing Afify.

While Morsy’s supporters celebrated the move as a sign of his belief in press freedom, Fahmy sees no actual gain in the president’s decision. “How could we feel happy about it if [Afify] still runs the risk of receiving a three-year jail sentence?” he asks.

Ethics or freedom?

But not all journalists agree there is an imminent threat to freedom of expression. The prosecution of Afify and Okasha has also exposed divisions with many journalists refusing to show solidarity withthe two men, who are tainted with reputations for sensational reporting.

“Did Okasha observe the code of journalistic ethics?” wonders Amany al-Khayyat, a TV journalist for privately owned channel ONTV. “I would not take to the streets to demand that Al-Faraeen channel resume transmission, but I would do to demand that professional criteria be laid out for TV channels.”

For Khayyat, the stir over violations of press freedom is anything but genuine. “If journalists had genuine concerns, they should have revised all laws that curb freedom of expression before problems began to arise. Since the day Mubarak stepped down, they should have raised people’s awareness about these laws,” she says.

She contends that the ongoing fuss is part of the ideological battle of secularists against Islamists, in which the former “pick on the latter’s mistakes and magnify them.”

In the meantime, other journalists argue that the principle of freedom of expression should be defended regardless of the person involved.

Abdel Aziz relates this division to the failure of some journalists to distinguish “matters of principle.” “Some journalists dealt with the situation by assessing the performances of both Afify and Okasha and supporting the toughest sanctions for their incendiary and violation-laden work,” he says.

During the transitional period, Okasha was a notorious counter-revolutionary figure. On his nightly show, he leveled ungrounded accusations against revolutionaries and openly supported the Mubarak regime and military generals.

After Morsy’s victory, he directed his wrath toward the Brothers. Meanwhile, Afify has been running a daily incendiary tirade on his front page, disseminating fictional stories about the Brotherhood. The practices of both figures have been widely dismissed as unprofessional and unethical.

Besides the syndicate’s inability to push for a media-friendly constitution, Merghany accuses it of failing to address ethical violations committed by journalists.

“What does the syndicate do to address the press atmosphere?” Merghany asks. “[Before the revolution], journalists did not commit as many violations as they are committing now.”

However, Fahmy does not believe dealing with journalists’ ethical violations is a priority at this juncture.

“You cannot provide conditions for the right journalistic practices as long as you keep this arsenal of restrictive laws,” he says.

Under Egyptian law, there are at least 30 clauses that could send a reporter to jail. In the meantime, there is no legal framework that recognizes the media’s right to information.

“Ethics come after the promulgation of laws that guarantee and protect liberties. Only then can you have self-regulation of professional practices,” Fahmy says.

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

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