CAIRO — A protocol between Egypt's Supreme Council for Media Regulation and the Nasser Military Academy calls for editors-in-chief of Egyptian newspapers and websites to enroll in mandatory strategic training sessions in media and national security. Former generals who now teach at the academy are giving the lectures. The sessions were announced Feb. 7 by Media Regulation Council Chairman Makram Mohammed Ahmed, stirring controversy among journalists.
A week earlier, on Jan. 31, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had lambasted media figures at the inauguration ceremony of the Zohr gas field at Port Said. He urged them to make certain of the accuracy of the news they report.
The Nasser Military Academy, established under a 1965 presidential decree to provide high-ranking military officers with capacity building and training for higher posts, was inaugurated that year by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Hatem Zakaria, a member of the council, told Al-Monitor that one goal of the sessions is to give editors training to identify news and articles that would harm national security if published. He said the council approved a cooperation protocol for the sessions with the academy on Dec. 27.
He said various sessions at the military academy are held for the staff of several state institutions and bodies. Al-Monitor reported in November that judges had enrolled in training sessions in strategic and national security studies at the academy. Moreover, the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education signed a protocol Dec. 29 under which university students and teaching staff would be enrolled in training sessions at the academy.
Zakaria said the sessions will take place "on a monthly basis at the council’s training center,” adding, “The council is the one bearing the cost of the sessions, the start dates of which are yet to be fixed.”
Yahya Qalash, the former head of the Journalists' Syndicate, told Al-Monitor that the sessions are yet another government measure to control the press following a clash with the state in May 2016, when police stormed the syndicate’s headquarters. Qalash, who was head of the syndicate at the time of the conflict, was sentenced to prison in November 2016 along with two members of the syndicate. Also, a law regulating the work of the press was passed in December 2016, strengthening government control over the press. Qalash said such efforts have coincided with a sharp decline in press freedom.
Since the council's inception in April 2016 at Sisi's behest, it has played a role in shaping Egyptian media policy; the council sanctioned channels that broadcast content deemed immoral or unprofessional and has taken off the air a number of TV shows and advertisements, including those criticizing the regime’s policy. One such show was “Sah an-Nom,” in which criticism was leveled against government officials over corruption allegations.
Qalash said that in the past sessions involving the military "were limited to military editors," which he said makes sense as such sessions are necessary to help the editors "understand the nature of their work." He said that requiring other journalists “to attend sessions on national security is an unprecedented way of dealing with the media. Nasser, who was known for his strong grip on the media, did not resort to such a measure and was open to the diversity of views. Things, however, are different today.”
Since he took office in 2014, Sisi has accused journalists and media figures of failing to stand by his side and see the magnitude of the challenges he is facing.
Ayman Abdelmagid, the editor-in-chief of the website Rose al-Yusuf, said journalists will get to know about national security concepts during the sessions, particularly since the state is engaged in a war on terrorism. He said that as a result of the sessions, journalists will be able to cover terrorist attacks in a way that preserves Egypt’s national security and prevents terrorists from using media coverage to serve their goals as well.
Abdelmagid told Al-Monitor that it has been years since informative sessions have been offered for editors-in-chief of newspapers at the Nasser Military Academy. He said he had already attended one of the informative sessions (as opposed to the mandatory sessions). He said the session was helpful and involved training in military concepts, international agreements, national security dimensions and terrorism risks.
Abdullah al-Sanawi, the former editor-in-chief of the Al-Araby weekly and a writer for the daily Al-Shorouk, told Al-Monitor that although he believes it is necessary for journalists to learn about aspects about national security, “I am afraid that the sessions will seek to instruct journalists not to approach matters that are vitally linked to national security, which would noticeably affect and harm the freedom of the press.”
Ammar Ali Hassan, a researcher in political sociology, said that since Sisi took office in June 2014, outreach sessions offered by the Nasser Military Academy have helped improve the image of the army and helped it attract supporters. These sessions have involved many state institutions, such as universities and youth centers in various Egyptian governorates.
Hassan told Al-Monitor that Sisi, even before he took office, had sought to control the media. The president's efforts came into the spotlight even more in May 2017 when the intelligence services acquired media outlets and blocked access to 21 news websites.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in September that it “is worried about the way Egyptian media outlets are being taken over by businessmen linked to the government and intelligence services,” and ranked Egypt 161st out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Hassan said the appointment of pro-regime editors-in-chief in 2017 — such as Abdel Mohsen Salama, a close associate of the regime, as head of Al-Ahram newspaper and the syndicate — and the appointment of Sisi-selected leaders of press councils have tightened the government’s grip over newspapers. This has included having these organizations follow government policy and manage anti-regime journalists.