CAIRO: As setbacks against press freedom in Egypt increase, a number of journalists believe self-censorship is higher than ever, even in comparison to the years of former President Hosni Mubarak while it reached its lowest levels under former President Mohamed Morsi.
“The freedom of the press and freedom of expression was highly perceived under Morsi, where less self-censorship occurred; however, severe pressure was practiced on journalists by pro-Muslim Brotherhood groups,” said columnist and member of the coordinating committee of the National Coalition for Media Freedom Khaled el-Sergany.
He told The Cairo Post that threats and attacks launched by Islamists on journalists and media institutions, such as El-Watan, El-Wafd and Egyptian Media Production City, did not lead to reporters backing away from lending criticism to Morsi.
“Some journalists have stopped criticizing the current regime as they thought that their criticism would benefit the terrorists,” explained Sergany, adding, “But this is not right.”
Sergany said that some newspapers support the current regime, without orders from the state, and have started to pressure their journalists not to criticize government decisions.
“[These newspapers and media institutions] should know that the current policies are not clear, and they do not know where they [regime’s policies] are heading,” he added.
“Unfortunately, there are many laws preventing criticism of the army,” he said, referring to the laws that prevent journalists from publishing information about the army without approval.
“We do not have now the freedom to write what we want,” a copy editor at Al-Masry Al-Youm, Mohamed Riyad, told the Cairo Post.
“What made self-censorship low under the Brotherhood ruling is that Morsi did not want to indulge in struggles with the media as he was concentrating on empowering his group,” said Riyad.
Riyad continued, “On the other hand, Mubarak was leaving a controlled space for media criticism against him and there was also the opposition of Islamists and revolutionary powers, which are now gone.”
In other words, Riyad said, “The margins of press freedom will go down under the coming regime, which will be worse than Mubarak.”
The same opinion was also stipulated in an annual report issued Thursday by Freedom House, which said that “the level of press freedom … [is] below the level of the final years of the Mubarak regime,” categorizing the status of press freedom in Egypt in 2013 as “Not Free”.
“Under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the first half of the year was characterized by the media’s extreme polarization along ideological and political lines, as Islamist outlets became platforms for the government and secular media railed against the president,” read the Freedom House report.
It also mentioned the crackdown launched against Islamist media outlets following Morsi’s ouster on July 3, as it noted that five journalists were killed in July and August.
According to the report, Egypt was not the only country that recorded a decline in press freedom, as the report stated global press freedom has hit its lowest level in 2013. “14 percent of the world’s inhabitants lived in countries with a free press, while 42 percent had a partly free press and 44 percent lived in not free environments,” read the report.
Journalists in jail (#Journalism is not a crime)
Recent detentions of journalists in Egypt, particularly the arrest of several Al-Jazeera employees, has received wide condemnation in recent months over unclear accusations.
Four Al-Jazeera journalists have remained in prison for more than 100 days and are currently standing trial. Vigorous social media campaigns were launched on Twitter under the hashtags #freeajstaff and #JournalismIsNotTerrorism.
Australian journalist Peter Greste, Al-Jazeera English Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy, local Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed and Abdullah el-Sahmy were accused of spreading false information and collaborating with a terrorist group.
“The authorities should clearly announce detailed accusations against the three Al-Jazeera journalists as well as clear evidence of their involvement in a ‘terrorist’ group,” said member of the Press Syndicate Khaled El-Balshy, who further explained that charges of spreading false news should not imply imprisonment.
On the occasion of World Press Freedom, May 3, the Committee to Protect Journalists called for the end of 10 emblematic cases of journalists in prison across the world, according to an April 29 statement. Freelance Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, who was detained in August while covering clashes between security forces and Morsi’s supporters, is among the cases. He is under pre-trial detention without charges.
As one of the top ten worst jailors of journalists in the world in 2013, Egypt arrested at least 17 in April 2014, according to a report issued by CPJ.
There are 38 lawsuits that have been filed against journalists in Egypt, according to an annual report issued by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression on May 3.
During the third anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, 19 journalists were arrested and assaulted by both civilians and police, said Balshy.
Repeated crackdowns on media practitioners have prompted many journalists to boycott covering clashes after violent incidents being targeted by violence, as well as many foreign news agencies that are now depending on local reporters for information, said Abeer el-Saady, vice chairman of the Press Syndicate, on Friday.
On Saturday, Reporters without Borders officially honored Saady as one of the “100 information heroes” who worked under difficult circumstances and sacrificed their lives for their profession. Saady commented, “This honor is for the 12 martyrs who died among Egyptian journalists, as well as the injured and detained.”
Local reporters dream about syndicate membership
Egyptian field reporters consider covering protests and street clashes as a de rigueur despite the hardship and threats to their lives.
According to a study by Al-Masry Studies and Information Center, which recorded assaults against journalists between January 1, 2011 and April 30, 2013, 309 Egyptian journalists were subjected to attacks, among which three died.
Journalist Al-Husseini Abu Deif was one of the victims. He was shot dead on Dec. 5, 2012.
Since the events of June 30, 10 journalists have been killed and dozens have been injured and detained, according to the Journalists Against Torture’s Facebook page.
March recorded the most recent death among reporters in the field, when female journalist Mayada Ashraf, 23, was shot dead while covering student protests. Her death raised questions about the lack of training received by journalists sent into the field.
“We first dream about working in the field, then we seek job contracts, and then we try to become members of the Press Syndicate,” Abdel Khaleq told The Cairo Post in March. He graduated in 2012 and has been covering protests as a journalist ever since.
Khaleq, 24, a reporter for Sada el-Balad news website, added that trainees face the biggest risk as they are tasked with covering clashes, which often turn into a warzone, with neither experience or press credentials.
Former head of Cairo reporters in BBC Khaled Ezz el-Arab told The Cairo Post that media institutions should not allow unqualified reporters to cover dangerous events such as protests, accidents, fires, and natural disasters.
A report issued by the CPJ in December 2013 listed Egypt among the top three deadliest countries for journalists in 2013.
Journalists’ safety: conditional protection and military vests
As journalists’ safety is a joint responsibility between the syndicate, press institutions, and national security, as explained by Balshy, controversy arose following the most recent death of a journalist in a field. Security forces were accused of deliberately targeting reporters on duty.
To tackle the uproar, the Press Syndicate received in April 50 bulletproof vests, that resemble army uniforms, and 50 bulletproof helmets from the Ministry of Defense that will be distributed to field reporters.
Many journalists rejected the new vests, which they claim would lead to subjective coverage because of the protective gear’s resemblance to military uniforms, and some of them blamed the syndicate for accepting them.
“Why would I wear an army suit? I am not working for the army,” said Mohamed Antar, the head of field journalists at Al-Shorouq newspaper, to The Cairo Post.
Saady explained that journalists’ lives are more endangered with these military-like vests, and most of the journalists are targeted in the head while on duty. She further noted, “We are talking about snipers targeting reporters; this is very serious and should be tackled.”
She added that the role of reporters is to witness incidents, and that the “Interior Ministry is responsible for journalists’ safety as public employees, and it should protect them.”
Furthermore, televised statements by Assistant Interior Minister Ashraf Abdullah in April caused a storm when he pledged to protect journalists, on the condition that they stand on the security forces’ side during protests.
Hend Mohamed, a photojournalist for El-Wady newspaper, told The Cairo Post, “They want our coverage to be oriented towards their interests, and not to cover their violations, and this is not objective coverage.”
“We are living in the worst time in press freedom history in Egypt, as we are now having ‘journalism martyrs’,” El-Balshy said, adding that, “This is the state’s responsibility.”
Balshy added, “As the Minister of Interior is primarily responsible for the safety of journalists, he is the first enemy to journalists because he should give orders to stop targeting media practitioners.”
More freedom for bloggers and social media
“The space of freedom on social media under Mubarak was tighter than the current [regime], as the revolution promoted the use of Facebook and Twitter and now you will find everyone has his own account on both websites,” said Sergany.
“Under Mubarak, there was what we used to call the ‘internet investigations department,’ while under Morsi, the Brotherhood had their ‘electronic committees,’” added Sergany. He explained that self-censorship does not influence those who write on the web in the same way as other media fields.
“Now we can find famous writers using improper words, cursing and criticizing specific officials in the governments on social media, without any fear,” he continued.
Riyad said that social media is not within reach of the state’s policies and censorship laws.
“Although the space of freedom of expression on Facebook and Twitter is now wide, there are some topics that remain taboo and sensitive to be discussed, like sex, terrorism and religion,” added Riyad.
Egyptian media outlets fail to be objective
At the end of 2013, most news outlets were sympathetic to the military government and failed to provide objective reporting or diverse viewpoints on the crisis, commented the recently released Freedom House report.
Different media outlets have been criticized for being biased in favor of certain state institutions, while on the other hand they were extremely critical of the Brotherhood during Morsi’s ruling.
“The media was attacking the Brotherhood as they saw the Islamist group was oppressing them,” said Balshy, adding, “But the elimination of a dictatorship does not mean silence over a new one.”
He further said, “Private channels have the freedom to support their favorite candidate, but government channels should provide neutral and objective coverage of both candidates … this is not happening right now.”