Free media in Egypt in a truce with dictatorship

Wednesday, 24 April 2013 06:30 GMT

Photojournalists hold up placards as they protest against harassment during news coverage, in front of the Shura Council in Cairo March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Desouki/

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The Egyptian media is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East and the world

The Egyptian media is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East and the world; the first printed journal was introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte when he came to Egypt in 1798, and it serves the biggest population in the Middle East, of over 80 million.

Media in Egypt in its different forms (printed, TV, radio and electronic) is playing a very important role in this unprecedented phase in Egyptian history, but what has the Revolution changed?

In a country where Media was never really “free” in western standards, let’s take a brief look at the history of Egyptian media through the last 100 years.

Until the military lead revolution in 1952, Egyptian printed media experienced a relative degree of freedom. The so-called “Liberal” era under the Egyptian monarchy saw Egyptian newspapers able to criticise, condemn and antagonise the Prime Minister and public figures, with the exception of the King at the time. Egyptian radio was founded in the 1920s and remained controlled and monitored by the government until the early 2000s when the first private stations were introduced to the Egyptian audience mainly for Music and entertainment.

Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1953-1970) Egypt experienced a total media freedom blackout, and although this proved very influential for the independence movements around the Arab world and Africa, it was impossible to hear an opinion or analysis that could contradict or even disagree with Nasser’s view.

During this time, the Egyptian giant newspaper institutions; Al Ahram Al Akhbar and Al Gomhureya, which have some of the highest circulation numbers in the world were nationalized and totally monitored by the government. Egyptian television founded in 1960 was also under total control from the regime and remained so until the first satellite privately owned TV stations were established by businessmen in the early 2000s.

Under Anwar Al Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak partisan newspapers were established, yet still leaders from the ruling National Democratic party remained in control of the press scene in Egypt and were able to appoint and fire heads of the biggest newspaper institutions. However, this press control started being disrupted by the emerging privately owned newspapers and TV stations appearing in Egypt.

It was even more disrupted by the imminent evolution of the media into yet another form, the Internet. In 2010 the number of internet users in Egypt was over four million, by 2012 it had jumped to 31 million.

With the spread of online media and private newspapers, the media could now criticise and hold politicians to account. However, aside from some low circulation opposition newspapers in the run up to the Revolution, this criticism did not stretch to the President until the unexpected surge in freedoms, numbers and a historical turning point on 25th January 2011.

The mass protests that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule and paved the way for the first relatively free parliamentary and presidential elections prompted unprecedented boom in the creation of TV stations, newspapers and even a bigger boom in levels of press freedom.

With the fall of Mubarak, taboos such as condemning the president and the historical “basic” facts in the country also fell.

But did the Egyptian media really brake away from its shackles and become free after the Revolution? This is still away from being true for three main reasons.

1-      The newly elected Islamic government, lead by the Muslim Brotherhood, surprisingly did not change the existing laws that allows the government to appoint and fire heads of State institutions, including at three widely circulated newspapers and the Egyptian Television and Radio. Media figures are now saying that there are efforts made to “Ikhwanize” or put the Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood)’s Islamic influence the relatively secular State-owned media. Similar influence is being felt in other national institutions according to opposition and activists.

2-      The Islamist government has also recently begun filing lawsuits against opposition media figures, journalists and satire comedians.

The presidency accused a number of media figures including satirist Bassem Youssef, presenter of “Al Bernameg” show of insulting the president and Islam, a charge that disappeared in many, if not most, democratic nations.

Aswat Masriya reported on Gamal Eid, an activist who found that the number of cases filed under the accusation of “Insulting the President” reached in 200 days of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency four times the number it reached during Mubarak’s 30 year era.

3-      Even if the 25th of January revolution challenged and weakened the main media political taboos, social and religious taboos remain which can be the hardest to fight.

In a country where, according to a 2008 Gallup poll, 98% of the population interpreted religion as the most important aspect of their daily life and where conservatism is on the rise, all that is needed to mobilize the masses against an opposition figure or journalist is an accusation of insulting religion.

Yet, with the ever rising number of Internet users, protests, and with every click of the “Share” button Facebook or Twitter, freedom of media becomes closer than ever to the Egyptian audience.