In Egypt, where just six months ago the press was exulting in newfound freedoms after the ouster of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, caution is now the watchword.
“Right after Mubarak fell, you had this window that was incredible — everything goes,” said Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “Journalists discovered that they were real journalists. The most interesting stuff I read was that first month of the revolution. It appears less free now than right after the revolution.”
What has happened to Egypt’s media, Telhami and other experts suggest, reflects the situation of the country as a whole, which remains under the rule of a transitional military government, called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, that has twice delayed planned parliamentary elections. While the press and electronic media are afflicted by ham-handed restrictions handed down by the military council, they are also affected by the pall of uncertainty that hangs over the country, they say.
There are some concrete reasons for journalists are walking on eggs.
Nasser Nasser / AP
Egyptian journalist Rasha Azab of the independent weekly al-Fagr receives support from colleagues as she arrives for questioning by investigators at the military prosecutor's office in Cairo on June 19. Azab and her editor Adel Hammouda were summoned for questioning over an article detailing complaints of human rights abuses.
For one thing, the vast majority of Egypt’s press is employed by state-run or semi-state run publications, which means they depend on the government for their paychecks. Telhami said that at least some of the current caution is a return to greater self-censorship.
“Official newspapers still handle the military carefully,” he said. “The military is trying to figure out how far to push and where and journalists are trying to find out how critical they can be.”
There is also the example of Maikel Nabil Sanad, the first blogger jailed after Mubarak’s fall who was later sentenced to three years in jail for violating a law that prohibits “insulting the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council or any State Authority, or the Army or the Courts,” and for “spreading false information.”
Among the writings that caused offense was a post in which he argued that “the army and the people never were as one.”
Now Sanad, who has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 23, is suffering a serious heart problem and has been transferred to the prison infirmary, according to the media Watchdog Group Reporters without Borders.
“The situation of bloggers now is reminiscent of the repression that prevailed before Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February,” said a statement from the organization. “Freeing the first prisoner of conscience since the revolution would be a powerful symbolic gesture, one that the entire international community would see as a sign of a commitment to openness.”
But there’s no sign the military is prepared to make symbolic gestures and break with firmly held tradition, at least not until a new government is in place.
“There’s no question the military is very sensitive about their image,” said Telhami. “Whenever there is a critique of the military in the press, they go on the defensive. … That has become an intimidating factor.”
Meanwhile, the government has set new limits on reporting testimony in the trial of Mubarak and his top officials, who are accused of ordering the use of lethal force against Egyptian protesters.
After initial hearings, where there was fighting between pro- and anti-Mubarak groups outside the courthouse, and shouting among lawyers within the chambers, the judge barred further broadcast of the proceedings. This move was initially met by suspicion among bloggers and broadcasters, though the trial remains open to journalists.
Also on Thursday the government froze the number of satellite TV station licenses pointing to what one official called an increasingly chaotic market. The communication minister said it would also take legal measures against satellite stations that incite sedition and violence, the Associated Press reported.
Since the uprising, there has been a proliferation of satellite stations and newspapers in Egypt, founded by government critics, Islamists, members of the old regime and other political figures.
Experts point out that while Egypt is in transition, there is a plan to move from military control to a new form of civilian government. After the parliament is in place, its members will be responsible for drafting a constitution and laying the groundwork for presidential elections.
Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that although the parliamentary elections scheduled for November were initially scheduled for June, it doesn’t mean the military is trying to cling to power. He said the delay is more likely to benefit newly formed parties that are trying to take on the established political players in Egypt.
He added that while the military council appears to be trying to govern, its main objective is preserving peace until elections can be held.
“The military’s prime directive is stability. They are worried about social cohesion,” said Cook. “The problem is that it undermines claims about setting the stage for a new more democratic and open Egypt.”
But none of the media policies should be seen as permanent, observers say.
“Until there is an election… there will be uncertainty about who makes decisions, and how far you can go and still keep your job,” said Telhami. “Then we’ll see how it evolves.”
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