Despite the absence of an opposing voice in the Egyptian media, fears have increased within media circles after a meeting was held for editors of 17 daily newspapers, both private and state-owned, as well as the head of the Journalists Syndicate. Following the meeting, they issued a statement on Oct. 26 in which they pledged not to criticize state institutions. However, there are still attempts at “resistance” by some journalists who continue to seek freedom of expression.
After the attacks in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 24, the heads of 17 private and state-owned daily newspapers signed the statement in which they reiterated their “rejection of attempts to discredit state institutions in its basic choices or insulting the army, the police or the judiciary, which reflects negatively on the performance of these institutions.” It added, “The audience is committed to stopping the publication of the data that supports terrorism and calls to undermine state institutions, both directly or indirectly,” which was considered by Journalists Syndicate member Khaled al-Balshi as a step toward the “nationalization of the press at the hands of its owners and an attempt to exclude other opinions.”
Balshi told Al-Monitor, “The statement includes texts that impose clear commitments on journalists, particularly in paragraph 4 of the statement. The [journalists] should sign the statement as if they were a political party gathered in support of one leader.” Balshi pointed out that in their statement, the editors criticize themselves when they talk about a commitment to stop publishing articles supporting terrorism, which suggests that they were publishing provocative articles before this statement.
Balshi is known to be a left-wing journalist who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi during his reign. This makes it impossible for him to be accused of being affiliated or sympathetic to the Brotherhood, a charge leveled by media loyal to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Two of the top talk show hosts recently stopped appearing on-air within one week. The Dream TV channel, which is privately owned, suddenly cut the episode of Wael Ibrashi’s show after he criticized many of the ministers, just days before the statement. Privately owned An-Nahar TV banned Mahmoud Saad from presenting his evening show on the same day the statement was issued, and replaced it with another program after one of his guests referred to Egypt’s military defeat in 1967.
Balshi revealed that the statement by the editors came after a series of meetings with Sisi and the minister of interior in which the latter spoke about the attack on the minister of health and the minister of education, considering that this paves the way for a revolution. Balshi added that the regime seeks to fix the limits of media freedom and disapprove the minister’s criticism. It seeks to prevent the political leadership from seeing the errors of the people working with it and the ones it works for. A number of journalists had attacked the ministers of health and education for the bad services offered to the people, such as Ibrashi, who criticized the education minister for the killing of a student in a school.
On the subject of the media’s future, Balshi said, “We are facing a reality that says that the opposition will be reduced and this has already happened when we found newspaper headlines on the day following the statement, such as 'Silence … The Rifle Speaks.' [There was also] an article from the editor-in-chief of Ahram newspaper that talks about the press having to be a soldier in the battle and that a realignment is a must, in addition to an article by the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm talking about how we should lose a part of our freedom,” adding that the fight against terrorism would be by detecting faults and exposing terrorism.
A number of journalists announced on Nov. 5 the establishment of the “Front to Defend Journalists and the Rights of Citizens,” after they had issued a statement announcing their rejection of the declarations of the Egyptian newspaper editors and the head of the Journalists Syndicate. “The meeting represents a renouncement of the freedom of press, a deliberate killing of the profession, a waste of the dignity of every Egyptian journalist and, most importantly, a victory for terrorism by the declaration of a voluntary renunciation of the freedom of opinion and expression,” the statement read.
More than 650 journalists signed the statement, including six of the 12 members of the Journalists Syndicate.
Balshi revealed that the Front to Defend Journalists and the Rights of Citizens aims at confronting the constant attacks on press freedoms, and freedoms in general, and putting an end to the silence and fear that the current regime is trying to exploit to muzzle the opposition voices.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, after Morsi’s ouster six reporters were killed and there are still at least 11 journalists in prison, including three from Al Jazeera English who were sentenced to prison ranging from seven to 10 years for being involved in terrorism.
Sisi values the influence of media and seems to be well aware of its seriousness, since one of the first steps he took during the statement on July 3, 2013, was the closure of Islamic satellite channels.
Hazem Hosni, professor of political science at Cairo University, said that Sisi was aware of the media’s power even before the ouster of Morsi. The videos that have been leaked in which he was speaking with some of the officers to control the media are proof. Hosni pointed out that Sisi still acts like a military commander and realizes that, one way or another, the media contributed to Morsi’s downfall.
Hosni explained to Al-Monitor that Sisi is trying to tame the media, while not affording the same attention to other political parties because he realizes that they do not have any real impact on public opinion.
On the subject of Sisi's policy in dealing with the media, Hosni said, “Sisi hopes to have the media serve the regime as it was in the Nasser era, so that all the media would say the same thing, express the same opinion and so he would be able to pass what he wants through the media without any criticism. However, this is currently happening as the youth are using social media to express their views and there are attempts at resistance by young journalists.”