The ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one year ago was supposed to be the harbinger of an era of democracy, freedom, justice and, ultimately, freedom of press. But only a few days removed from the anniversary of Mubarak’s “departure,” journalists – foreign media and locals alike – are facing the heavy hand of the Egypt’s governing military council as they seek, day-by-day, to do their jobs.
On Saturday, the military again showed its face by detaining Australian journalist Austin Mackell, Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi and American graduate student Derek Ludovici in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla. The three were then transported hundreds of kilometers over two days, charged with “incitement of violence” and “bribing” local residents to demonstrate. All three deny the charges.
The incident triggered new widespread outrage, with activists and professional media colleagues demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) release the trio immediately while calling for an end to the near constant crackdown on journalists in the country.
For the Australian, the detention has affected his entire life. Locals from his neighborhood ransacked his flat, increasing his fear for his personal safety while in Egypt. Mackell told The Media Line, “I don’t feel safe. This is not just affecting my work; it’s my entire life.”
Late Tuesday evening, Mackell, Alwi and Ludovici were barred from leaving Egypt while an investigation is ongoing.
The situation of Mackell and the others was the latest in a string of attacks against media in the country. In December, this Media Line reporter was beaten and detained for 13 hours in downtown Cairo while attempting to photograph the barbed wire fence that had been erected near the Cabinet building. Like Mackell – who described citizens being tortured and beaten in the cell nearby – the military at that time also appeared unfazed by a foreign presence; attacking, assaulting and eventually killing one protester in plain sight.
But the crackdown on media in Egypt goes farther than the detention of foreign journalists. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published an extensive report in which it documented at least fifty cases of intimidation, arrests, summons and attempts to silence what many believed last March were indicators of nascent freedoms.
According to Egyptian journalists, the message the SCAF is sending through the systematic arrests and detentions during the past 12 months is “don’t criticize the military.”
The beginning of what many media professionals are calling the “full-on assault” in conversations with The Media Line came last May when activist Hossam Al-Hamalawy, who blogs at arabawy.org, and two journalists were summoned by the army after they were critical of the military’s actions during two separate broadcasts carried by popular independent television station OnTV.
Program host Reem Maged and reporter Nabil Sharafeddine, along with Hamalawy, were questioned personally by Adel Morsi, the head of the Military Justice Authority.
Maged, whose program is called “Baladna Bil Masry,” told reporters that the army claimed she was not being investigated, but that it need to “clarify” statements made on the talk show. On the program, Hamalawy had accused the military police of rights abuses, claiming he had proof of violations committed by officials he named. He said after his interrogation that the military demanded that he provide all documents pertaining to the alleged violations. The quizzing of Sharafeddine was related to his comments regarding the military that were made on the same program.
Although the three were not detained, they insist the message was made clear by the military: criticism will not be tolerated. Weeks before, the military council had issued a formal communiqué stating that media could face fines and possible jail time for criticizing the military’s actions – a policy that continues to this day.
In April, an Egyptian military court sentenced Internet activist and blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for criticizing the armed forces. He was arrested on March 28 after posting on his blog comments that were critical of the army’s role during the massive protests throughout the country that resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Nabil, 26, was a prominent secular activist who gained notoriety for his movement on Facbeook called “No for the compulsory conscription.” He was the first blogger to be jailed following the fall of the Mubarak regime; his case in retrospect a sign of things to come. Nabil was released in January, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the uprising.
One leading editor speaking to The Media Line under the condition of anonymity because of fear for his safety said bluntly that, “it’s not the civil prosecution to be worried about, it’s the military.”
The editor asserted that currently, “things are touchy. More people are facing military interrogations over insulting the military and most of [what they said] isn’t even that bad.”
But for media professionals, the military’s long reach has led to censorship, with even the most outspoken independent newspapers seemingly acquiescing under the military’s might. Late last year, Al-Masry Al-Youm – the leading non-government run publication – refrained from publishing an interview with U.K. journalist Robert Fisk and an editorial in its English language sister publication for fear it would stir the wrath of the military junta.
Both incidents, coupled with dozens of incidents in which reporters were attacked while covering protests – at least five photographers have lost sight in at least one eye – and the fear of being arrested or summoned because of what he or she writes, has led to an outpouring of anger.
Ahmed Aggour, a leading protester, argues adamantly that the problem facing Egypt and its media was state television.
“Look at what they are showing,” he began. “The state tells the people lies about what is going on, talks of foreigners’ involvement, and this hurts the country.”
This coercion of media has been seen following every violent outbreak in the country over the past 6 months, with the military detailing how protesters “used excessive force;” “were being directed by invisible hands;” followed by the assertion that “the military does not use force or kill its citizens,” despite evidence to the contrary. If a reporter speaks up, or a publication writes negatively about the military, they face charges of “insulting the military.”
For the mainstream Arabic press, reporting and discussing military initiatives or actions, is fraught with self-censorship. Adel Hammouda, a leading editor with Al-Fagr newspaper – who has experienced being summoned by the military – told The Media Line in a recent interview that now when media cover the military’s actions, they have begun to remove anything that is critical of its performance.
“There’s too much fear going around right now,” Hammouda said. “Nobody wants to have their names revealed when dealing with the army, so it is frustrating. And now we are already censoring our work because we don’t want to have our reporters get detained or face charges for anything that they write.”
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