CAIRO: Since the dawn of satellite television across the Arab world, the media has taken on a more combative role in its review of government, once the absolute force behind what was reported. Arab governments in recent years have been forced to take a hard look at their tactics for dealing with the media, as the watchdog has grown more fierce and independent over time.
The media campaign for President Hosni Mubarak’s bid for reelection last summer proved an ideal example of this evolving phenomenon. Egypt’s Emergency Law, highly condemned for its authorization of sweeping arrests and detentions by Egyptian national security has, over the past 25 years, equally made media access to the president arduous and exclusive. The campaign did away with presidential press passes, and access to the formerly inaccessible media team became, for the most part, as simple as picking up the phone.
Still, journalism laws remain in effect, despite promises by the president prior to the September 2005 elections to amend laws that stifle the media. Laws that govern the Egyptian media are broken up into three parts: the Penal Code, Press Law and Publication laws. A reporter who is caught criticizing the president, members of the government or foreign heads of state risk being fined or serving jail time. The Press and Publication laws both protect against malicious or invalid reporting, but have served more as a tool guarding against libel and defamation. Hundreds of journalists have been detained over the years as a result of these laws, making Egypt one of only 13 countries worldwide to imprison journalists for their work.
“In order to make sure you have this kind of reward-punishment relationship, you have to every now and then give hope for change, but you don’t have this kind of change, explains Ibrahim Saleh, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo and author of the new book Prior to the Eruption of the Grapes of Wrath. “The government used to do this throughout the years (giving a little bit of something as a sign of change) but nothing would really happen.
In 1996, fines under the Press and Publication laws were increased. In 1997, Article 195 of the Penal Code, which held editors criminally responsible for libel published in their papers, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court. Egypt’s public prosecutor also has the authority to issue temporary bans on publications printing topics surrounding national security. Furthermore, the Minister of Interior, Habib Al-Adli, whom there have been repeated calls for resignation, has the authority to issue a ban on foreign publications which contain issues threatening public order.
The recent controversy surrounding cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have sparked such a reaction from the Egyptian authorities as they sought to prevent an unruly reaction from the public. For two days in mid-February, all foreign newspapers disappeared off the shelves of newsstands across Cairo. Vendors confessed that government agents picked up the newspapers shortly after they were delivered, though few dared to offer a reason.
Egypt’s once monopolistic government-owned media began losing ground toward the turn of the century, with satellite networks, such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya, luring away viewers with their then-uncharacteristically bold and critical reporting against Arab governments, though both networks are criticized for their tendency to avoid addressing issues that cast a shadow on the Qatari and Saudi governments. Nonetheless, these networks have set a standard for reporting in the region, which experts say Egypt is far from coming close to, despite its attempts.
“People are underpaid, explains Saleh. “Marginal salaries are still not enough. You’re not trained enough. You have an enormous number of people doing nothing so how can you expect quality? And you have a very centralized authority.
“Satellite has more freedom at least when they open up the hotlines with viewers, they call in and they voice whatever they think; they don’t really cut them off as long as they do not cross their own red lines, notes Moataz Demerdesh, a veteran presenter for MBC and Dubai TV. “Public media cannot do that. That is one of the results of the society that has not yet matured into a democracy. People are taking the easy way; the easy way is to play with the winner.
While the government does not seek to candidly censor privately-owned media, several networks have been advised to avoid addressing a number of subjects. Certain subjects are banned by law, including any discussions of Coptic-Muslim relations, terrorist propaganda and modern interpretations of Islam. While the government has created barriers for privately-owned publications to obtain licenses, many have beat the system, obtaining licenses from abroad then either printing abroad or in Nasr City’s “Free Trade Zone.
“You can never compare Egypt to media in Syria or Saudi Arabia, Saleh explains. “We have had development. We have marginal freedom. Even the national station has some level of marginal freedom. We have the parliamentary channel which is by itself good. It’s not enough, but it’s good. I think in another two or three years, we will mature.