Mon, Aug 01, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Egypt media gains being reversed by military rulers

By Sami Aboudi  /  Reuters, CAIRO

Illustration: Yusha

Hafez al-Mirazi spent weeks preparing for his new prime-time talk show on state TV, but one week before Cairo Local Time was scheduled to start, an army general ordered it put on hold.

Mirazi was told that the format for the show broke rules requiring more than one host, an explanation that the veteran journalist saw as an excuse to keep him off the airwaves of state TV.

“It’s not about my show ... I am very worried because this incident is a common excuse for intimidating the media,” he said.

Mirazi, well-known for his talk shows and interviews on pan-Arab satellite channels al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, believes the generals ruling Egypt since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow were annoyed at his outspoken criticism of how they manage the media.

Egypt’s January revolution has smashed the fear barrier that once forced journalists to temper their coverage of state affairs and avoid criticism of the head of state. The most outspoken were ostracized, fired and occasionally imprisoned.

News programs on private TV stations as well as the state-run channels now routinely cover protests against the government and the ruling military council. Deference toward ministers is rare, replaced with skepticism and even criticism of top officials

Press freedom advocates say these gains are under threat from a military establishment traditionally hostile to the idea of dissent in the ranks.

Rights groups have documented more than half a dozen cases of harassment of journalists and bloggers over news or opinion pieces critical of the ruling military council.

One of Egypt’s best known bloggers and social media activists, Hossam el-Hamalawy, was summoned for questioning by military prosecutors following an appearance on state TV in which he accused military police of abuses. Presenter Reem Maged was questioned as a witness to Hamalawy’s comments.

In June, two journalists from al-Wafd Party newspaper were questioned by the military prosecutor’s office over a reference in a May 26 story to a possible deal between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political grouping in Egypt, over elections.

However, the most serious case was that of blogger Maikel Nabil, who claimed in a piece entitled “The army and the people weren’t ever one hand” posted on his blog in March that the army had tried to obstruct the uprising against Mubarak.

A month later, 26-year-old Nabil, an activist in the anti-Mubarak protests, was given a three-year prison sentence.

“That was a catastrophic ruling,” Arab Network for Human Rights Information executive director Gamal Eid said. “Repeated summoning of journalists spreads an atmosphere of fear among journalists to exercise self censorship.”

Nabil’s defense lawyer, Ali Atef, said his client was tried by a military court and the verdict handed down after he and the family were told the hearing had been adjourned.

“It’s bad enough that my client, a civilian, is tried in a military court,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) quoted Atef as saying. “But it’s outrageous that the court is violating his right to a fair trial.”

The generals have decreed what media can cover, and what they must not. The army has sent instructions to editors telling them to “refrain from publishing any items — stories, news, announcements, complaints, -advertisements, pictures — pertaining to the armed forces or to commanders of the armed forces without first referring to the Morale Affairs Department and the Department of Military Intelligence and Information Gathering.”

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