Reporters Without Borders hails yesterday's decision by President Mohamed Morsi to request Al-Dostour editor Islam Afifi's release just hours after a court placed him in pre-trial detention. Afifi is due to be tried on 16 September on various charges including publishing false information about President Morsi.
The press freedom organization also welcomes an announced presidential decree repealing pre-trial detention for media offences. "Mr. Afifi will be released under this decree,” presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said.
Reporters Without Borders nonetheless continues to be very worried about the overall media freedom situation, especially in the wake of the Shura Council's appointment of new CEOs and editors to state-owned newspapers on 8 August, which has had a big impact on their editorial policies and has led to articles critical of the Muslim Brotherhood being spiked.
"Respect for the independence of the state-owned media is one of the fundamental guarantees of freedom of information in a country that aspires to be democratic," Reporters Without Borders reiterated.
23.08.2012 - Newspaper editor detained, Muslim Brotherhood take control of state media
Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by the restrictions on media freedom resulting from recent decisions by Egypt's newly-elected authorities.
It is also very worried about today's decision by a criminal court judge in Giza to detain Islam Afifi, the editor of the daily Al-Dostour, until he is tried on charges of publishing lies about the president and endangering Egypt's interests and stability.
Afifi was charged in response to many complaints about the newspaper's 11 August issue, which had a front-page story warning that the Muslim Brotherhood could turn Egypt into an "emirate." The complaints also led to a court order under which copies of the issue were seized.
"This is a sad day for media freedom in Egypt because, for the first time since the January 2011 revolution, a professional journalist has been jailed for what he has written,” Reporters Without Borders said. "The judicial authorities are trampling on the desire for freedom that the Egyptian people expressed during the 2011 and 2012 protests. We call for Afifi's immediate release."
Shortly before the judge issued his detention order, Afifi told Agence France-Presse he was the victim of a "political" prosecution.
The court ruling comes amid other very disturbing blows to freedom of information in Egypt. Six weeks after taking office, President Mohamed Morsi got the Shura Council – in which the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has 60 per cent of the 174 directly-elected seats – to appoint new CEOs and editors to the state-owned media on 8 August.
Several well-known FJP allies were appointed, marking a major break with the past, when the state media were extremely hostile to the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood. The appointments were nonetheless contrary to the wishes expressed by journalists and media that they should be made by an independent body.
"The authorities are continuing the Mubarak era's methods of making appointments and are thereby perpetuating government control of the state-owned media, which must stop," Reporters Without Borders said, calling for the appointments to be rescinded. "Media independence is one of the guarantees of freedom of information in a country that wants to establish a democratic system."
Reporters Without Borders will closely monitor the drafting of the new constitution, in particular, whether it provides real protection for fundamental freedoms.
The appointments have already had an impact on the state-owned newspapers. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), they have stopped printing critical articles. One, Al-Akhbar, has eliminated its “Free opinion page” and has ceased to publish the writer and novelist Ibrahim Abdulmeged's weekly columns.
Abdulmeged said his sidelining was the result of the new editorial policy introduced immediately after the Shura Council appointed Mohamed Hassan Al-Bana as editor in chief. Al-Bana refused to take any articles from authors critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, adding that editors appointed by appointed by the National Democratic Party during the Mubarak era were "more professional.”
According to ANHRI, Al-Akhbar also refused to publish an article entitled "Neither listening nor obedience" by the writer Yusef Al-Qaeed criticising the Egyptian Media Production City siege by members of the Muslim Brotherhood's youth wing, who threatened journalists critical of the president. And it spiked an article by Aabla Al-Riwaini about the "brotherization" of the print media after the author refused to drop the word "brotherization."
An article by Ghada Nabeel criticizing these publication bans was itself refused publication by the pro-government daily Al-Gomhurria. Nabeel said she was very worried to see such practices become systematic.
"The pro-government newspaper bans on articles critical of the Muslim Brotherhood clearly show that their new, Shura Council-controlled editors are putting pressure on journalists who question government policies," Reporters Without Borders said. "Like the method of their appointments, they cast doubt on the independence of the state media."
Three independent newspapers – Al-Watan, Al-Tahrir and Al-Masry Al-Youm – printed special inserts instead of editorials on 9 August accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of being bent on controlling the media.
Tawfiq Okacha, the owner of a TV station called El-Faraeen (The Pharaohs) and presenter of a programme that is very critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi, has meanwhile been charged with inciting the president's assassination and the government's overthrow. His trial is due to open on 1 September. The TV station has been suspended for a month and could be closed for good.