Return of journalists to Egyptian screens raise hope of easing restrictions on media

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has reshuffled the three media bodies in charge of monitoring the performance of media outlets in Egypt, coinciding with reports about the return of prominent media figures that had been shunned in past years.

al-monitor Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, carries a camera at his home in the capital Cairo, Egypt, March 4, 2019. The award-winning photojournalist was released today after spending nearly six years in prison following his arrest while covering a bloody crackdown on protests. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images).

Jul 19, 2020

The heads of the three media bodies in charge of monitoring the performance of all audio, visual and written media outlets in Egypt took their constitutional oath before parliament July 5 to begin their work for the coming four years.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had issued a decree reshuffling the media bodies June 22.

Under Articles 211, 212 and 213 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution, television, radio, print media and online digital media are regulated by three commissions: the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), the National Press Authority (NPA) and the National Media Authority.

As per the presidential decree, Sisi dismissed seasoned journalist Makram Mohammad Ahmad as head of the SCMR and replaced him with Karam Jaber, who was the chairman of the NPA.

Abdel-Sadek el-Shorbagy replaced Jaber as head of the NPA. Sisi kept Hussein Zein as head of the National Media Authority.

The reshuffle of the three media bodies should have been carried out in 2018, when the Law on the Organization of the Press took effect. Yet still, the bodies kept operating, with no amendments, until Sisi announced the reshuffle June 22. 

The three media bodies were formed in April 2017 under a presidential decree. Since then, the bodies have been involved in a campaign undermining press and media freedom in the country. 

Most recently, on June 16, the National Media Authority issued a decision banning the media from covering “sensitive” issues. The SCMR, then headed by Ahmad, issued a statement saying, “The Supreme Council for Media Regulation confirms the need for all media and social media sites, in all their forms, to abide by data issued by official sources when broadcasting information regarding Libya, the Renaissance Dam and the military operations in Sinai against terrorism.”

Meanwhile for the past three years, the SCMR has blocked hundreds of news sites, imposed fines on press institutions and banned reporters from appearing on TV. The council has also blocked hundreds of blogs and accounts on social media, under a law that gives it the power to block and legally pursue any blog or account that has more than 5,000 followers and is accused of publishing false news.

Ahmad, who headed the SCMR for the past years, was thus considered a tool for the state to tighten its grip on the media.

However, the situation changed in December 2019 when Sisi ordered the formation of a Ministry of State for Information Affairs, as part of a Cabinet reshuffle. Osama Haikal was appointed Minister of State for Information Affairs, and was tasked with coordinating between the various media bodies and drafting the state’s media policies and following up on their implementation.

The Ministry of Information, which had been present in Egypt since 1952, was closed on June 16, 2014, following calls to ease the restrictions imposed on the media and allow a wider space for freedom of expression.

Haikal’s appointment sparked the anger of Ahmad, who accused Haikal of taking over his powers. In a TV interview on Sada al-Balad in February, Ahmad criticized what he considered undermining the freedom of expression in Egypt and called on the regime to give a platform to the opposition for the sake of diversity of opinions and to allow some space for openness without constraints.

Egypt has been witnessing a campaign of oppression and a crackdown on freedom of expression since Sisi took office in 2014. More voices have been silenced recently when journalists blamed the fragile health system that failed to counter the coronavirus crisis.

According to Amnesty International, at least 37 journalists are currently languishing in Egyptian prisons. Egypt recorded a drop in the global index for journalistic freedom that Reporters Without Borders issued in 2020, ranking 166 in a list of 180 countries.

It seems the Egyptian government is steering a plan to tighten its grip on TV channels. It has also established WhatsApp groups to issue instructions regarding what the media can publish.

Perhaps the news coverage of the death of late President Mohammed Morsi, who died during a trial session on June 17, 2019, is the best example of the government’s intervention in media content; Morsi's death was summarized with 42 words in Arabic on all media outlets — TV, radio and printed media — and it was not given much importance.

Justin Shilad, a senior researcher on Middle East and North Africa affairs at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that ever since Sisi took office, the Egyptian authorities have been exercising total control on the media, at all cost. He added, “The government has gone to extremes in imposing its control over critical journalism.”

Shilad told Al-Monitor via email his criticism of the Egyptian authorities’ clampdown on journalists and the media by imposing restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression.

Security forces arrested journalist Mohamed Monir on June 15, and Nora Younis, who is also editor-in-chief of the Al-Manassa news website, was arrested on June 24. She was later released. Monir, 65, died in a government hospital, on July 13 after he was infected with the coronavirus while in detention. 

Earlier, on May 17, Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of the independent Mada Masr news website, was arrested by security forces while she was interviewing the mother of detainee Alaa Abdul Fattah, a prominent anti-government activist.

Shilad noted that any possible change in the government’s inclinations toward the media depends on the international community and the pressure it can exert on the Egyptian government regarding the freedom of press and the media.

However, the hopes of media employees in Egypt of the state’s possible change of heart in the media issue were rekindled when media reports revealed early July the return of prominent media and press figures to TV screens after being absent or excluded, perhaps intentionally.

The main returning faces to the screen include Ibrahim Issa, a critic of Sisi’s regime, in addition to Magdy al-Jallad and Khairi Ramadan, among others, who will appear in a talk show on the private Al Kahera wal Nas channel (Cairo and the People) owned by Tarek Nour, owner of prominent Tarek Nour Advertising company. The program is set to be launched in August, according to Shorouk newspaper.

Issa’s last political program on an Egyptian channel was stopped in January 2017 due to security pressure for constantly criticizing Sisi’s policies.

In the wake of the escalating clampdown on freedom of speech and expression with Sisi’s rise to power, prominent journalists and correspondents forsook political programs and opted for social or artistic shows to avoid finding themselves unemployed.

A former editor-in-chief of a talk show told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that changing the media map, which is currently unilateral and pro-government, might contribute to encouraging Egyptian viewers to watch local channels again, while they had taken to following foreign media because the content of all local channels was similar and identical to the state’s narrative.

However, the editor-in-chief who had worked for several satellite channels linked the return of viewers’ trust in local satellite channels to the varied media content and wider space for freedom of expression through these shows.

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