Mounting freedom of information worries after one year of Morsi

Reporters Without Borders is deeply concerned about the state of freedom of information in Egypt a year after Mohamed Morsi’s installation as president. The fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February 2011 raised hopes of profound change and real improvement in respect for fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of information, which is essential in a country that hopes to be considered democratic. However, the changes seen since Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012 are very disturbing. The list of concerns is long. The new constitution adopted in late 2012 did not include enough basic safeguards and did not guarantee media independence. There has been a surge in lawsuits and prosecutions of journalists. Reporters have also been the targets of deliberate physical attacks that have gone completely unpunished. These violations of freedom of information have reflected a desire on the part of the government and ruling party to prevent media coverage of events that could hurt their image and to conceal the political and social protests that have been causing turmoil.

Temptation of full powers

President Morsi had a constitutional decree adopted on 22 November 2012 that expanded his powers. Dubbed the “new pharaoh” by the opposition, the decree said “the constitutional declarations and decisions and laws issued by the president are definitive and are not subject to appeal.” The decree also authorized President Morsi to take any decision to “protect the revolution.” After major protests, Morsi rescinded the decree on 8 December 2012. But the opposition described this as a “political manoeuvre aimed at deceiving the people” because he kept 15 December as the date for a referendum on a proposed constitution that had been much criticized because it was said to open the way to the Islamization of legislation and provide insufficient guarantees for freedoms, especially freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

New constitution – moral and religious restrictions

Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Morsi on 5 December 2012 expressing concern about the draft constitution, which was approved by a referendum later that month. The letter began by voicing amazement at the speed with which the constituent assembly passed it. “After the process had been stalled for months, its 234 articles were adopted at the end of a marathon session on 29 and 30 November,” while the opposition boycotted the proceedings on the grounds that they were controlled by Islamists. “While this draft constitution provides certain rights with formal protection, it undermines others,” the letter said. “It contains no mention of international standards on freedom of expression and leaves everything to the courts and legislators to decide. “Some of its provisions are clearly repressive. As they are vague and imprecise, they open the way to the possibility of arbitrary application. Even more seriously, it continues to make it possible for a judge to order the closure or confiscation of media, and control of the media is not completely ruled out.” Article 45 guarantees freedom of thought and opinion. It says: “Every individual has the right to express an opinion and to disseminate it verbally, in writing, by means of an illustration or by any other means of publication or expression.” Nonetheless, articles 31 and 44 ban insulting “human beings” and the “prophets.” Article 31 empowers the authorities to prosecute and convict journalists who criticize the government. Article 2 declares the “principles of the Sharia” to be the “main sources of legislation,” just as the old constitution did. But a new provision stipulates that this article should be interpreted according to Sunni doctrine, which leaves the door open to stricter interpretation. Article 10 describes the state as the “protector of morality” but, like other concepts, this role is not defined. As a result, they open the way to arbitrary and therefore repressive implementation, especially as article 81 says the individual’s “rights and freedoms shall be practiced in a manner not conflicting with the principles pertaining to state and society as stated in this Constitution.” Article 47 says the state guarantees the right of access to information, data, documents and statistics unless this right conflict with the right of a third party or with national security. While articles 48 and 49 enshrine the principle of freedom, questions are left hanging over the freedom to create a media (because it is subject to “notification” rather than just a declaration) and whether legislators will respect international standards on regulating the creation and operation of radio and TV stations. Online media should be accorded the same freedom as traditional media but the closure and confiscation of media are permitted if ordered by a judge and the control of the media is not forbidden in all possible circumstances (article 48). Article 215 provides for a National Media Council that would regulate not only radio and TV broadcasters but also the print and electronic media. This is contrary to the principle of self-regulation that should prevail in the media. The council’s functions would include ensuring that the media respect Egyptian society’s values and traditions. There is no provision for guaranteeing the council’s independence.

State media under party control

On 8 August 2012, six weeks after taking office, President Morsi got the Shura Council – in which the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has 107 (59 per cent) of the seats – to appoint new managers and editors to run the state-owned media. Several were well-known FJP allies, marking a major break with the past, when the state media were extremely hostile to the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood. The appointments were contrary to the wishes expressed by the journalists working for these media, who had called for them to be elected or appointed by an independent body. These appointments have had a major impact on the state-owned media, preventing, for example, the publication of articles critical of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such practices perpetuate the Mubarak era's appointment methods and continue the tradition of government control of what should be public-service media. The independence of the state-owned media is one of the cornerstones of freedom of information.

Prosecutions and arrests

According to Gamal Eid, a lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), four times as many complaints for “insulting the president” were filed during the first 200 days of Morsi’s presidency as during Mubarak’s 30-year reign. Often brought by the president’s “legal advisers,” who are Muslim Brotherhood members, these lawsuits have been facilitated by President Morsi’s appointment of Talaat Abdallah as prosecutor general after his predecessor, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, was fired under the “constitutional declaration” giving Morsi exceptional powers. The Cairo appeal court rescinded Abdallah’s appointment in March, ruling that it violated the laws governing the judiciary. But the appeal court’s ruling has gone unheeded and Abdallah has continued on the post. He is close to the president and his appointment has highlighted the degree of executive interference in the judiciary and the constraints on judicial independence. The satirist Bassem Youssef has been the target of many prosecutions in recent months for openly criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood on his weekly TV programme Al-Barnameg. The charges at his various trials have included “insulting President Morsi,” “insulting Islam,” “spreading atheism,” “threatening public security,” “spreading rumours and false information” and “insulting Pakistan.” This is not an isolated case. The number of complaints has soared. Reporters, TV programme hosts, editors and cartoonists have all been targeted for openly criticizing the government or just expressing an opinion at variance with the government’s. Some have already been tried. Others are awaiting trials. These lawsuits encourage self-censorship. President Morsi announced on 10 April that he would withdraw all the complaints that his legal advisers had filed against journalist accusing them of spreading false rumours about him. It was a move in the right direction but all the complaints accusing journalists of insulting the president or religion should be withdrawn. Reporters Without Borders was also alarmed by freelance journalist Mohamed Sabry’s arrest in January while he was filming in a military zone in the northeastern city of Rafah for a report for Reuters about a decision by the armed forces to ban the purchase of land in the border area. Although subsequently released, he has been awaiting trial before a military court since January but the trial date keeps on being postponed. Ironically, trials of journalists before military courts were criticized by the Muslim Brotherhood before it came to power and had been regarded as a thing of the past.

Threats and physical attacks against journalists

Reporters Without Borders is also concerned about the increase in violence against journalists. Deliberate, targeted acts of violence have risen in recent months while the authorities show little interest in protecting journalists, despite the extreme political tension. Furthermore, impunity reigns. Few investigations of any kind are conducted into acts violence, let alone independent and impartial investigations. Hate speech against journalists by some Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Salafists during demonstrations also goes unpunished. Among other violent comments, they have called for a “purge of the media world” and accused the media of “dividing the country” and wanting to “overthrow the government.” Politicians have also often been guilty of this kind of contempt and hate-filled discourse. The Union of Journalists voiced alarm about a speech by President Morsi on 25 March and warned of a “campaign of intimidation and incitement of hatred against journalists.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a total of 67 media personnel have been the targets of physical attacks in the 12 months since President Morsi took office. In most cases, they were targeted by Morsi supporters while covering clashes between them and opposition supporters. Reporters Without Borders condemned the fact that Morsi supporters deliberately fired on reporters while they were covering clashes outside the presidential palace on 6 December. One of the journalists, Al-Hosseiny Abu Deif, died six days later from the head injury he received from a rubber bullet fired at close range. An investigation into the incident distinguished itself by its lack of independence. Reporters were again deliberately targeted during demonstrations outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo on 16 and 17 March. According to the CPJ, at least 14 journalists were attacked, eight of them by Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters and the others by police. Two journalists, Doaa Abou El Nasr of Al-Fager and Mahmoud Malik of Al-Watan, were attacked by Wahid Hassan, a local Muslim Brotherhood leader, while covering a demonstration by teachers in the Aswan region on 11 June. The journalists filed a complaint against Hassan, but no action was taken. Instead, Hassan filed his own complaint against five journalists, including Nasr and Malik, who were interrogated for six hours and then released ( Media City, the Cairo suburb where the main independent TV stations are based, was besieged on 24 and 25 March by Islamists protesting against “biased” media coverage of protests outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters on 22 March. They denied access to journalists and TV studio guests, often using violence. This was the second time that Islamist protesters have overrun Media City. The first was on 17 December 2012 The premises of some news media have also been attacked and ransacked in the past 12 months. They include the Al-Jazeera bureau in Cairo, which was attacked with Molotov cocktails on 21 November, and Al-Watan’s headquarters, which was the target of an arson attack on 9 March.

Egypt is ranked 158th out of 179 countries in the 2013 press freedom index, which Reporters Without Borders released in January.
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Updated on 20.01.2016