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Media freedom in Egypt: a long way from Tahir Square

Written by Theresa Mallinson
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For a few months after the February 2011 revolution, Egyptian media gained a taste of freedom. This has since been clawed back by the military government, leaving journalists worse off than they were under the Mubarak regime. Between outright censorship through direct threats of jail time and indirect threats leading to self-censorship, there is now little space left for independent journalism.

You probably know about Peter Greste – the Australian Al Jazeera journalist who was arrested in late 2013 and spent 400 days in jail in Egypt on trumped-up charges. Greste was deported from Egypt in February this year – a way for the Egyptian government to save face, while effectively releasing him from a seven-year jail sentence. You may also have heard of Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – Greste's colleagues, who are currently out on bail while a retrial of their case was under way in April 2015.

However, these three men are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to journalists in jail in Egypt. And, although the Al Jazeera case has attracted the most international attention – with one Australian and one dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen – on trial, the majority of journalists behind bars are local.

It is difficult to quantify the exact number of journalists currently imprisoned. Firstly, media-freedom organisations apply strict criteria when defining arrested journalists: were they arrested because of their journalism, or while on the job? Or were they arrested as private citizens while, for example, attending a demonstration? In a media landscape where many journalists engage in activism, and hold loose or formal political affiliations, such distinctions are crucial.

Secondly, journalists are frequently detained for questioning and released after a few hours. It's near impossible for organisations to keep an up-to-date record of every journalist who has been harassed in this way – as such, head counts of those in jail tend don't contain real-time data. The latest Committee to Protect Journalists tally – as of 1 December 2014 – lists 12 imprisoned journalists. [http://www.cpj.org/imprisoned/2014.php] This will next be updated in mid-May; as some names, Greste among them, are removed from the list, others arrested since December last year will take their place.

According to Sherif Mansour, the Mena programme coordinator at CPJ, the charges facing many arrested journalists relate to covering demonstrations. These include such vague charges as "inciting chaos", as well as spreading lies, and supporting violence and terrorism – a veiled reference to affiliation with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Sarah el Masry, a researcher in the freedom of the media program at the Cairo-based Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression (Afte), outlines the case of Ahmed Gamal, a journalist with the news agency Yaqeen, whose trial resumes on 29 April. He was arrested while covering a demonstration at Al-Hazar University.

"He was caught in December 2013 and his trial started at the beginning of 2015. He stayed over a year in temporary detention. He works for an Islamist-affiliated news agency – however, he's not an Islamist himself or even a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser. He's a journalist known for his leftist affiliation and ideology. One of the charges is that he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, a 'terrorist' organisation," said el Masry.

"However, for us, it's an irony to have to prove [he's not a Muslim Brotherhood member], because even if he was, he shouldn't be captured just for his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. He was also charged with destroying public property – setting on fire a couple of police cars. He's been charged with so many different things, even though he proved over and over he was just doing his job there."

It's not only the protest law and the raft of anti-terrorism laws often used to restrict media freedom that journalists have to worry about. Reporting on the military – which is already allowed only with special permission – is set to face tighter restrictions, with a draft law including penalties of up to five years imprisonment.

Directly after the February 2011 revolution, journalists had a few months of breathing space. "There was a nine-month period in which the press in Egypt had an unprecedented free environment," said Mansour. "The journalists themselves saw the government stepping back and worked together to maintain their independence. Also, this was the first time since the 1950s when Egypt didn't have a media and information minister to control the media sphere."

Journalist Ayman Hamed – currently a senior editor at Al Watn newsaper – recalls this period, when he was working at Tahrir newspaper. "We were writing and talking about everything and everyone you can imagine," he said. "For us, it was a new era of freedom, but for them [the remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime] it was a sign of chaos."

Hamed states that there was still some measure of freedom under the Muslim Brotherhood rule from 2012 to 2013. "During this time everybody was attacking the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Bassem Youssef had a very famous satirical news programme – El Bernameg – and this was allowed." El Bernameg was discontinued in 2014, after Youssef felt the political climate in Egypt made it too dangerous to pursue; he currently on a fellowship in the US.

Since Abdel Fattah el Sisi became president in June 2014, the crackdown on the media has intensified. "They are very sensitive to any criticism now; they are saying the media are attacking them – without any justification," said Haman.

Media in Egypt falls into two camps: state-controlled broadcast and print media; and private newspapers and television channels. However, private does not mean independent. The president has repeatedly called on journalists not to engage in reporting that "supports terrorism" or "discredits state institutions" – and many media houses have heeded this call. In October 2014 a group of influential editors even penned a letter publicly pledging not to criticise state institutions. While hundreds of journalists signed a counter-petition, there's not much space for dissent.

"Many media houses and journalists were also intimidated and threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in power – so they have a personal vendetta against the Brotherhood. They are happy to align with the army and many of them will continue to support the military government," said Mansour.

"The margin for independent media in Egypt at the moment is very thin," said el Masry. The government is using propaganda against the "war on terror" to silence dissent, she added. "Even the audience right now is not fully willing to criticise the government or to criticise Sisi as a figure. The situation is now a little better than before [the revolution], but it is still a very closed public sphere and a very closed atmosphere for the media."

For Hamed, social media offers a space for debate that traditional media lack . "The only free space today is Facebook," he said. "You can write what you want. But, the majority of the people don't have Facebook.

"Journalists face very hard times. The journalist's job now has a very bad reputation, unfortunately. People think you are an agent; you are working against the country," Hamed said. "It is a very hard internal conflict. You have to accept the government line or be jobless. After 30 June [when Morsi was deposed], I decided to stop writing – I'm just doing editing."

It's the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt since the CPJ started keeping records in 1992, Mansour said, taking into account the number of imprisoned journalists, those killed while doing their jobs (six last year alone), and the generally restrictive media landscape.

CPJ sent a delegation to Egypt to meet with officials in February this year, and wrote a direct letter to Sisi, calling for the release of all jailed journalists – and reforms of the laws that put them there. "We don't see any positive signs so far since we left," said Mansour. "We're hoping to see much more flexibility from the government's side.

"If anything can change, it should be the government's perception of dissent. There needs to be tolerance of dissent that would allow critics – including opposition and independent voices – to operate without reprisal. That would be the first step."

Theresa Mallinson is assistant editor at Daily Vox

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