Ranked 161st in the World Press Freedom Index 2018 from Reporters Without Borders, contemporary Egypt is characterized by a rapid deterioration in press freedom, subject to severe censorship and draconian state control.
Though Egypt is the source of the spread of the printing press in the Arab world, successive governments have progressively limited freedom of expression up until today, in which one wonders what remains of a space for independant, critical, and free media coverage.
The press in Egypt: on the rise in the 19th century
It is difficult to imagine that what has become a prison for journalists was once an important place for breaking news and broadcasting in the Arab world.
Returning to the era of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the printing press rapidly developed throughout the 19th century, with the emergence of outstanding newspapers circulating the streets of Cairo.
Notably, Al-Ahram, founded in 1875, proved itself as one of the country’s most read papers. Today, Al-Ahram is a major point of reference for many daily newspapers in the country.However, the variety of Egyptian media does not reflect diversity in its content.
In reality, media publishing has been standardized to the point of becoming a mere reflection of the inescapable discourse imposed by the state.
How does the Egyptian State censor the freedom to inform?
Observing the current media landscape illustrates this lack of freedom of expression and information in today’s Egypt.
The process of restructuring the media through a systematic transfer of ownership is indicative of what Reporters Without Borders calls the « Sisyphication of the media.”
In this respect, the Media Ownership Monitor launched by Reporters Without Borders in Egypt is highly informative. The survey of structures, relationships and key actors that control the Egyptian media not only reveals the state’s pervasive presence in broadcasting, but also denounces the intervention of security and intelligence services.
This is the case of the broadcasting and satellite television sector dominated by The Egyptian Media Group, which is indirectly controlled by the secret service. Similarly, the printing sector is either concentrated around well-known state-owned enterprises, such as the Al-Ahram Establishment, or linked to private institutions owned by wealthy businessmen loyal to the regime.
Unsurprisingly, in this context of total state control, independent media and journalists are running a higher and higher risk. In addition to banning hundreds of websites, prison seems to be the regime’s preferred instrument for silencing disagreeing voices.
According to a study conducted by Reporters Without Borders in early 2019, at least 32 journalists have been arrested on charges of « threatening national security » or « defamation ».
Their profiles suggest that all journalists working independently or on sensitive topics are almost certainly destined for prison. This is the case of Mahmoud Abu Zeid, better known as Shawkan, a photographer who specializes in recording the violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Mohammed al Husseini Hassan, a journalist investigating current inflation in Egypt. The list could go on and on…
Yet this extreme state control is not limited to eliminating freedom of expression in journalism.
A repression of all forms if the freedom to inform
The repression is so widespread that it can affect all areas. Not only activists, but also poets, singers, artists, researchers, writers and bloggers can all potentially fall into the category of people who pose a threat to national security.
As a result, freedom of expression poses a very high risk under what the Deputy Director of the Project on Democracy in the Middle East (POMED), Andrew Miller, called « the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history.”
Local and international human rights organizations relentlessly denounce the practices of the Egyptian authorities that are aimed at suppressing peaceful dissent. Because of this dedicated work, they face serious threats. Among other things, POMED refers to the case of certain human rights defenders of notable NGOs, such as the Cairo Institute for the Study of Human Rights (CNCDH), the Arab Network for Information on Human Rights human rights (ANHRI), the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), accused in a lawsuit « of offending the Egyptian state, of threatening the national security and of harming the country’s interests ».
Once again, fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and information are flagrantly violated under the current state of emergency in the name of the fight against terrorism and national security.
Censorship, danger and prison are key words that come to mind when one thinks about journalism in Egypt.
In a country where journalism has become a crime, as the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy reports, freedom of expression and information may become mere abstract concepts in people’s minds. This is an alarming scenario that erases even the last traces of Egypt’s distinguished past as champion of the advancement of the press and information in the Arab world.
Zoom: being a journalist in contemporary Egypt
In examining the general situation of freedom of expression and information in contemporary Egypt, it is natural to wonder what journalistic work might look like in this difficult context.
We asked Yahia Dabbous, an Egyptian student currently studying at Sciences Po School of International Business, to describe his experience as an editor of the online paper Egypt Independent.
His testimony emphasizes not only the severe control exercised by the state over the published content, but also the resulting instinctive tendency of self-censorship.
In a context where any subject can be extremely sensitive, the question of what is allowed and not allowed becomes an all-consuming thought. As a result, the journalist’s pen travels preferably within these imposed (or self-imposed) limits, leaving little or no room for the journalist’s own analysis, accuracy and creativity.
Yahia gives us several examples to illustrate the difficulty of writing and publishing articles in today’s Egypt.
Notably, in the days leading up to the presidential election of 2018, reporting news of the various arrests and withdrawals of potential candidates against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proved to be a delicate task.
For information only, the article would mention such an event; for security reasons, it would only quote the official statement, with no subsequent comments.
As Yahia describes his experience, and new facets of the profession of journalism in Egypt emerge. Among other things, the economic aspect presents itself as an urgent challenge for journalists.
Yahia recalls several colleagues who had to work two jobs to earn enough. According to Yahia, a journalist’s salary can not guarantee enough resources, especially to support a family. While journalism in today’s Egypt is clearly a risky and not very rewarding profession at various levels, Yahia’s story also highlights the ethical issues that journalists face when working for newspaper.
Media coverage of the story of Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a journalist selected for the UNESCO Press Freedom Prize and imprisoned for covering the 2013 Rabaa event, is an example of such a challenge.
The national press mainly broadcast the official narrative around a journalist described as « terrorist » and « criminal » by the regime. Knowing Mahmoud Abu Zeid personally, his story, and his work, Yahia and other editors refused to publish such an article and were faced with the only alternative: to leave the paper.
Thus ended prematurely Yahia’s experience as an editor of Egypt Independent. Yahia’s story reflects our understanding of the implications of this drastic state control on the media.
What may sometimes appear as the abstract concept of freedom of expression is rather a primordial human right whose impact on society and individuals has never been more concrete.
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