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Egypt's media freedom at all-time low?

Ahead of Egyptian elections, the country faces some of the worst media curtailment in decades.

Last updated: 24 May 2014 08:43
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Abdullah Elshamy has been jailed without charge since August [Al Jazeera]

New York, USA - He has been insulted by fellow journalists, threatened, faced-off against angry mobs and had his phone-tapped conversations broadcast on television. For Wael Abbas, a popular Egyptian blogger, the country's media scene has hit an all-time low.

"I've annoyed the authorities for 10 years now, exposing police torture, corruption, election-rigging, sexual harassment - criticising everyone from former president Hosni Mubarak to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood," he told Al Jazeera. 

"The current media clampdown is horrible, bizarre and unprecedented. It's worse than totalitarian times. Everyone broadcasts the same propaganda. There is no place for revolutionaries or Islamists, who are defamed as spies who want to destroy the country," he said.

Abbas spoke at an event in Columbia University this week called Covering Egypt: Media and Politics in the Post-Mubarak Period. It focused on the plight of independent, fact-based journalism as Egypt has been polarised between religious fighters and a secular military.

Egyptians will elect a new president on May 26-27 amid some of the worst media curtailment in decades. The former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to trounce his leftist rival, Hamdeen Sabahi. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ousted from power last year, are in jail.

In a letter to the two candidates, the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that a "drastic decline in press freedom" was bad for democracy and that reporters have not been "under greater threat of assault, imprisonment, or even death" in Egypt since the 1980s.

Ten reporters have been killed on the job since 2011 - a sharp increase on the single journalist death throughout the previous two decades, it said. Another 50 reporters have been hurt and 200 have been arrested these past three years, according to Reporters Without Borders, another watchdog group.

'Not free' 

Two years ago, no journalists were in Egyptian prisons. Now, there are between 16-20 and Egypt ranks among the world's worst five countries for locking up reporters, according to figures from the two media monitors.

Health of Al Jazeera's Elshamy is failing

Detainees include Al Jazeera Arabic reporter Abdullah Elshamy, who has been jailed without charge since August, and Al Jazeera English staffers Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who have been jailed since December on charges of aiding members a terrorist organization and spreading false news. Al Jazeera denies the allegations.

Freedom House, which monitors political and media liberty, has downgraded Egypt, an Arabic-speaking nation of some 87 million people and a 550 billion dollar economy - from "partly free" to "not free" in its latest annual survey.

Reporters Without Borders says journalists were sucked into Egypt's political maelstrom when protesters thronged into downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square in the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011 and forced Mubarak's ouster.

The media has since been riven by "Brothersation" and "Sisification" as "different governments since president Hosni Mubarak's removal have tried to control the media and have not hesitated to adopt repressive measures", it said in a report.

After Mohammed Morsi's presidential election win in June 2012, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party appointed loyalists to state-owned newspapers. The December 2012 constitution curtailed free speech and "opened the way for the Islamization of media legislation", it added.

Since Morsi's ouster by the army under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013, the new military rulers have orchestrated a "witch hunt" against journalists with purported links to the Brotherhood, which was outlawed as a "terrorist organisation" in December, it said.

The military shut five television stations, including the Brotherhood's Misr25, blocked three pan-Arab channels from broadcasting and raided the offices of Qatar's Al Jazeera Mubasher and detained staff. They were later released.

"The new military-backed government has little tolerance for critical media, especially if it can peg them as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood," Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson told Al Jazeera. "The shameless prosecution of Al Jazeera's journalists now under way gives a sense of how punitive this government is."

Mohamad Elmasry, a University of Denver media scholar, describes a lack of professionalism in Egyptian media, with many acting like activists or scaremongers with political agendas. He highlights bizarre conspiracy theories that have aired recently without basic journalistic fact-checking.

Tall tales include Brotherhood plans to sell the Pyramids of Giza and the Sinai Peninsula, that US President Barack Obama's brother funded Egyptian religious fighters and that a 2001 episode of The Simpsons offered a suspiciously accurate prediction of Syria's civil war.

Fair election?

Sisi's supporters see him as a much-needed stabilising answer to turmoil in Egypt. Opponents see him as the ringleader of a bloody coup that robbed power from Egypt's first freely-elected leader.

It's hard to have 'fair and free' elections when the leading opposition party members are all in jail.

- Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch

Critics say Sisi gets an easy ride during media interviews, more airtime and supportive coverage. In a recent interview, Sisi was telling journalists he did not fear Brotherhood fighters. The Egyptian journalist Khalid Salah exclaimed: "This is what we love to hear!"

Sabahi has complained that he is not running in a "fair election" but also that he is not an idealist.

"The entire election will be a bit of a farce, given the arrests of virtually the entire Freedom and Justice Party's leading members," said Whitson, on the sidelines of the Egypt debate in Manhattan. "It's hard to have 'fair and free' elections when the leading opposition party members are all in jail."

One Western journalist who works in Cairo for a local English-language outlet, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said editors played a game of "wink-nudge self-censorship" when discussing about military matters.

"Anything to do with the army is a red line here. Egypt's military is not just a fighting force; it manages and staffs petrol factories, cement plants and other industries. Their share of the national budget, however, is classified," the journalist told Al Jazeera.

"Writing anything about the army is illegal without its permission, so most news organizations have military-accredited journalists who often just add their bylines to military press releases. Questioning information could lose them their source."

When asked about media freedoms, Sisi has warned newspaper editors not to push for free speech, saying too much protest threatens national security and that full democracy is an "idealistic" target that could take 25 years to reach.

With media trumpeting Sisi's message, Egyptians who back the Brotherhood or dislike a one-sided monopoly are turning to foreign sources, the un-censored internet and online tools - which played a key role in spreading the original anti-Mubarak protests - for news.

JoeTube, which offers "black comedy" on the ruling elite, has more than a million YouTube subscribers. Freedom House says 70 per cent of Egyptians have mobile web access and that, by May 2013, almost 14 million Egyptians were posting on Facebook.

Elmasry said wealthy media barons should lose their editorial influence and called for an independent media ethics body and rigorous journalism schools. In the Land of the Pharaohs, few have mastered the "inverted pyramid" structure of fact-based newspaper storytelling, he said.

"I don't think it's likely to change. The current regime has no choice but to continue to repress," he told Al Jazeera at the event. "If they allowed more democratic and media freedoms they would also open themselves up to prosecution for their crimes."

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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Al Jazeera
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