Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by a deterioration in the press freedom situation ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections and the 2011 presidential election, with the return of repressive practices that had disappeared.
Under the guise of “protecting the public interest,” the authorities are establishing mechanisms for controlling and censoring news and information, and are sending Egyptian society a clear message that from now on everything will be under surveillance.
Suspension of satellite TV stations on Nilesat
The information ministry announced on 19 October that government-controlled TV satellite operator Nilesat was temporarily suspending its transmission of 12 satellite TV stations – Safa TV, Ayat TV, Al-Athar, Ahlulbayt, Marah Al-Khalij, Rayhana TV, Al-Ruqya, Aalam Hawaa, Email@TV, Mara7 TV, Strike TV and Live TV – for promoting violence, racial hatred, quack medicine and superstitions.
Twenty other stations have reportedly received warnings. They are Alghadeer, Sada Al-Islam, Bedaya, Al-Fajr, Al-Majd, Wasla, Al-Sufiya, Al-Anwar, Al-Qeethara, Mawaheb, Jordan Medical TV, Samad, Mersal TV, Sahm TV, Al-Hakeka, Al-Emarah, Ghinwa, Al-Zahabeya, Hawas TV and Hi TV.
The authorities accuse these stations of promoting religious extremism and inciting intolerance among the different components of Egyptian society. “Some of these stations incite murder in an explicit fashion, which clearly shows the need for state intervention to guarantee the social order and protect society from extremist temptations,” the information minister said. He added that some stations broadcast programmes for which they do not have permission.
Nilesat has apparently also stopped transmitting other stations that were not on the ministry’s list. They include Al-Sehha Wal-Jamal, Al-Khalejeya, Al-Nas TV, Al-Hafez, Al-Hekmah TV, Al-Atheer TV, Wesal TV and Al-Rahma TV. At the same time, some stations that were on the list of those suspended, including Ahlulbayt, Strike TV and Live TV, are still being transmitted.
The National Authority for the Regulation of Telecommunications (an information ministry offshoot) has meanwhile told nine new satellite TV broadcasting companies operating in Egypt that they had to obtained permission from the Egyptian Radio and TV Union (ERTU) in order to continue live external satellite feeds.
When they went to the ERTU, the representatives of these stations were told that, in order to be assigned frequencies, they had to locate their satellite feed units in fixed and permanent locations and their offices in the Egyptian Media Production City, a new media complex in the 6th of October City to the southwest of Cairo. These requirements seriously limit their ability to use their equipment as they wish.
SMS censorship campaign
The authorities also launched a veiled SMS censorship initiative on 11 October, telling companies that send massive amounts of SMS messages to mobile phones that they must now obtain a licence from the Telecommunications Regulation Authority. Other SMS content suppliers including political parties and news service must do the same. The licences can cost up to 88,000 dollars.
Mahmoud El-Gweini, an adviser to the telecommunications minister, defended the measure in a statement to the Associated Press news agency on 12 October, saying it was needed to prevent mobile phone users receiving SMS messages on sensitive subjects such as religious tension or stock exchange fluctuations. He denied any intent to rein in political activity.
Reporters Without Borders thinks these measures will restrict freedom of expression in country with an estimated 60 million users of SMS services and could directly impact the work of human rights organisations that send out SMS messages about violations. The controls have clearly been established with the aim of curbing the flow of information about street protests and opposition attempts to rally support.
Well-known sports commentator Alaa Sadeq, a former footballer, was meanwhile suspended by information minister Anas El-Feqqi as programme presenter on the government TV station Nile Sport after publicly accusing the interior minister of “inability to maintain order and security during a football match.”
Sadeq, delivered his criticism on the air during the Nile Sport programme “Thelalon Wa Adwaa” (Lights and Shadows) on 3 October. It was prompted by incidents at the previous day’s African Champions League semi-final in Cairo between Cairo team Ahly and Tunisian team Espérance in which supporters were seen tearing up seats and throwing them at stewards.
As already reported by Reporters Without Borders, the publisher of the leading daily Al-Dostour fired editor Ibrahim Issa on 4 October for insisting on publishing an op-ed piece by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and potential opposition candidate in next year’s presidential election. ElBaradei’s proposed article referred to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Issa also hosted a current affairs programme called “Baladna bel Masry” on a privately-owned TV station that was taken off the air at the same time without any reason being given (http://en.rsf.org/egypt-newspaper-editor-fired-tv-07-10-2010,38505.html).