Day after day, there are more signs demonstrating the lack of any willingness on the Egyptian state’s part to even remotely apply the principles of freedom of information that are stipulated in Egypt’s Constitution. Between measures like media gags, cracking down on civil society organisations, delegitimising international human rights reports and official statements that ask Egyptians to listen only to their rulers, the state appears to be after an environment where it monopolises information on all possible levels.
The measures taken to suppress information are accompanied by an obvious lack of willingness to disclose or cooperate in disclosing information. The Russian aeroplane that crashed over Sinai and the Giulio Regeni case are both examples of this. What’s even more alarming than the regular draconian approach to the application of freedom of information is the willingness to incriminate—usually under false pretences—those who disseminate information that contradicts the state’s official account of the truth, regardless of the level of accuracy in that account. The frequency and extent of this information monopolising process is becoming difficult to ignore and impossible to isolate from other incidents in Egypt’s recent political trajectory.
It is no secret that freedom of information is a necessary prerequisite for any functional democracy. In fact, the ability to disseminate information through different means was one of the main reasons why the democracy movement had some breakthroughs in the ability to mobilise during the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. The role played by media outlets like Al-Jazeera and Al-Masry Al-Youm, as well as the leverage given to social movements via the internet during Mubarak’s last decade in office are significant elements in the prelude to the 25 January Revolution.
If the demonstrations on 25 April and the heavy security presence on the streets that day proved anything, it would be the regime’s utmost concern about, and perhaps even fear of, social mobilisation. The point is, no matter how the regime tries to justify its attempts to control information and monopolise it on a nationalist and security-oriented platform, there is a definite dimension of political interest that cannot be overlooked.
But the problem is not only with the numerous media gags or the lack of willingness to disclose information, it is also with the overarching intent to shape common perceptions and manipulate public dialogue.
Over the past couple of weeks, a number of incidents took place that bear evidence to this allegation. First, there are attempts to control independent media, which could be witnessed in the buying off the channel ONTV by a businessman known for his close ties to the regime and his financing of one of the pro-regime political parties. Second, there was a statement made by the speaker of parliament threatening parliament members that they will be subject to penalties by the parliament’s Conduct Committee if they discuss the US dollar exchange rate in public. This statement was accompanied by a wave of violent criticism by the speaker of the parliament against research centres who train MPs to oppose the state. Third, there were the cases against members of the board of the Press Syndicate and those who were active in opposing the maritime borders agreement recently signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which is better known as the Tiran-Sanafir agreement. The legal basis for the charges in both those cases is the dissemination of inaccurate and incorrect information, without any reference to or evidence of the correct information.
At first sight, these incidents may seem isolated from one another, but the fact is, they are very much related. The common thread in all those incidents is the state’s adamant efforts to unify sources of information, minimise the room left for public dialogue, incriminate those who contradict the state’s official discourse and manipulate public perceptions. As usual, those efforts are justified on a platform of national interest, homeland security, anti-terrorism measures, and conspiracy-based explanations of foreign meddling. In addition, serious efforts are made to find legal frameworks for all politically inspired actions. In short, the Egyptian state is working hard and moving closer to achieving a dynamic where it monopolises the flow of information and controls public debate.
According to statements made by state officials, Egypt is at war with terrorism, which is a fact that I do not intend to contradict or deny. However, I fail to see how monopolising information can aid in this war. Egyptian state officials have claimed more than once that they are the source of the ultimate truth, but the historical and recent track record of the state in true disclosure is a terrible one to say the least. A state that monopolises information will eventually be consumed by hearing the sound of its own voice, by making the same mistakes and expecting different results, and by denying its people their basic right to know.
Ziad A. Akl is a political analyst and sociologist. He is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.