Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Journalistic attacks on the New Egypt

In its recent reporting and commentary, Egypt’s media has not fulfilled its responsibility to properly inform the public, writes Yassin El-Ayouty

Al-Ahram Weekly

A mirror case is that of the Saudi islands of Tiran and Sanafir, for it mirrors a malaise in the Egyptian media as it lies or obfuscates under a new cover. This is the cover of “freedom of expression,” also known as “freedom of the press,” born in the vortex of the two companion revolutions of 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013.

There are limits to every freedom, and frameworks for every right. The freedom context has two layers: the lower one is that of the individual, and the higher one is that of the community. No freedom can be without limits. And no expression is to be protected regardless of its content. The very term “protected speech” indicates that there are limits to that freedom.

In regard to the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, that reasonable limitation on freedom of expression has been massively breached. The perpetrators are the very journalists who are required to observe it. This is for the following reasons.

Journalism is a public trust. Its role is to investigate and to report accurately, because these requirements are the basis for journalistic licences.

In return, the state has the duty to protect the public from biased journalism. No state, especially the New Egypt, which is transitioning from dictatorship (military regimes from 1952 to 2011, and then Islamist from 2012 to 2013), can move forward when its media thrives on the business of lying to the public.

This explains why the media, in any orderly society, tries to police itself. Self-policing for the profession goes by the name of a code of professional honour. Whatever exists in the Egypt of today in this regard has not been manifest in the case of Tiran and Sanafir. Without citing again the names of the Egyptian writers, as I did in a prior article, it is necessary to cite here the comments of the Egyptian media in regard to this critical case.

Samples of the provocative statements adopted by a media that lacks the honour of its profession include the following: “Oppression shall not create a successful regime,” “Freedom in Egypt is in retreat following two revolutions,” “The Press Syndicate is subjected by the Interior Ministry to increasing violations against its members,” “Rumours regarding disaffection within the Armed Forces because of returning the islands to Saudi Arabia,” “Saudi Arabia is re-embarking on cooperation with Israel in joint projects in the region,” and “Is there a threat to the Suez Canal resulting from returning the two Islands to Saudi Arabia?”

Other statements that I have found include, “Has the Egyptian-Saudi joint committee on the islands taken these issues into account?”, “Why was the Saudi flag flown in many parts of Cairo on the occasion of 25 April commemorating the liberation of Sinai?”, “Why did the Shura (consultative) Council in Saudi Arabia approve the delimitation of the Egyptian-Saudi boundaries on the very day of the Egyptian commemoration of the liberation of Sinai?”, “The angry Egyptian youth shall not return from their demonstrations without getting definitive assurances that Egyptian territory has not been surrendered,” and “The purpose of the demonstrations is to exercise freedom of expression” on the Friday called “Land Day”.

None of the above statements propagated by a dishonourable Egyptian media can be legally described as “protected speech”. None of the above can be immunised from state sanctions against a media engaged in destabilisation. All of the above are an amalgam of attacks on the legitimacy of the post-Islamist presidency and governance.

They are calls for outright “mobocracy” intended to undo the painful progress of Egypt’s moving towards normalcy. They are a total misunderstanding, in fact, proverbial ignorance, of the meaning of freedom, and incitement to disaffection, including to defections from the Armed Forces, the only historically cohesive national institution in Egypt.

They include impugning the motives, intentions and measures adopted by Riyadh and Cairo for some degree of economic integration and for cooperation with the Gulf States. They are crying wolf in a sordid attempt to link unlinkable elements in the rightful return of Tiran and Sanafir to their sovereign, Saudi Arabia, and they are an outright, stupid, and vain interference in the internal affairs of a proud, benevolent sister state Saudi Arabia.

Such shameful reporting, which in every respect does not serve the public or national interest, underlines the need for reviewing the legitimacy of licences issued by the state and/or the Press Syndicate, enabling journalists to become “agents provocateurs,” upholding the recently enacted regulations regarding public demonstrations, and linking the war against terrorism in Sinai and on the Libyan border to internal calls for hooliganism and violence.

This reporting has been spewed by an Egyptian media that finds in the new freedom a hospitable environment for subversion and the realisation that the failed attempts by the so-called Muslim Brotherhood to change Egypt’s DNA as a secular state might find in today’s Egyptian media the needed oxygen for its revival.

Questions for the media: A bundle of questions emerges from the illegal efforts of the Egyptian media to claim Saudi territory as a part of national Egyptian patrimony.

These include: Isn’t it treasonous to conspire publicly against the New Egypt under the secular constitution of 2014? Is mischievously yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a stampede and deaths, an exercise of freedom of speech?

Has there been any damage to the image of a stable Egypt resulting from these hallucinatory journalistic accusations of territorial surrender?

Is the state entitled, and in fact duty bound, to put an end by legal means to this charade of a contrived cold war on the Al-Sisi administration? And under what human rights theories should Cairo act to bury this campaign of vilification and mob arousal by voices that would have never found their vocal chords under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser?

Theories of human rights law and humanitarian law intersect when the destiny of the state is in question because of foreign threats or internal dangers. There can be no foreign tutelage over human rights, which is a domestic issue. We have not touched, either, on the issue of aid to Egypt from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all benefactors by the billions for funding of Sinai and other projects.

By March 2016, these Gulf allies of the New Egypt had each offered $4 billion in investment in Egypt. Egypt’s respect for the Saudi-Egyptian agreement of 1950 for the temporary administration by Egypt of the Tiran and Sanafir islands has nothing to do with Arab aid, though naysayers make that linkage.

In rebuttal, I, as a defence attorney still in active practise, offer this hypothesis. If Egypt is in the practise of giving up territory for financial aid, then I must pose this question: Why not give up, say, Marsa Matrouh, to America’s Fifth Fleet in return for the annual $1.3 billion allocated by Washington to Cairo since the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979?
While April witnessed the Egyptian media’s false campaign for the Egyptianisation of the Saudi islands in the Gulf of Aqaba, 1 May registered more grievous positions by the same outlets. On that day, the police pursued two journalists against whom judicial subpoenas had been issued for acts contravening the law.

The hot pursuit led the officers into the headquarters of the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo. From the circumstances, it was obvious that the fleeing suspects were under the false impression that the building afforded them immunity from the long arm of the law.

Following their lawful arrest, the council of the Press Syndicate issued on 4 May a collective protest against what it characterised as “an invasion”. It labelled the lawful police action a “dictatorial attempt” by the Ministry of the Interior to muzzle the press.

Most of the newspapers called for the resignation of the interior minister. Some even called for an apology from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. And the editorials throughout the first week of May were nothing but a parade of public incitement to open revolt.

The president of the Supreme Council of Journalism, Galal Aref, said, “Press freedom is an inherent right of every citizen.

The invasion of our syndicate building was an attack on basic freedoms.”

Mohamed Abu Hadeed, the columnist at Dar Al-Tahrir, which publishes Al-Gomhuria newspaper, wrote, “Fabricating such provocations of the press by the regime can only mean that a huge event destabilising Egypt shall occur on 30 June.” He was referring to the third anniversary of the second revolution, which led to the elections that brought Al-Sisi to power as president.

Nabil Zaki, the columnist at Al-Ahali newspaper, asked, “Should we expect the reinstatement of the police state that the Egyptians, through two revolutions, have demolished?” Wagdy Zain, executive chief editor of Al-Wafd, said, “The actions by the Interior Ministry cannot be understood except as intending to undermine the presidency.”

Mahmoud Sultan, executive chief editor of Al-Masriyoon, asked, “How could the president convene a meeting with the Military High Command instead of rushing to meet with the Press Syndicate on the crime of invading its headquarters?”

These are not low-level press stringers. These, as well as others who spoke in the same vein, are top executives at important press outlets. The shrill voices that have attempted to rewrite international law in claiming two Saudi islands for Egypt are the same voices who, out of ignorance of the law of immunity, are now bestowing immunity on that building as if it were a foreign embassy.

Reiterating the rule of law: Immunity is generally defined as exemption from prosecution. “Hot pursuit” by the state for the apprehension of two suspects fleeing a lawful warrant is integral to the police powers of any sovereign state.

The ugly face of ignorance with regard to freedom of expression in the New Egypt has been unveiled. It was unveiled in early April in the matter of Tiran and Sanafir and again in early May in the issue of the two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Saqqa, and their false claim of immunity. In between those fatal dates there were numerous violations of the recently enacted law on public demonstrations.

Under all laws, aiding a fugitive, as happened at the Press Syndicate, is criminalised. This comes under the two theories  of obstruction of justice and co-conspiracy. The Egyptian media has encouraged such violations by depicting the Tiran and Sanafir issue as a sell-out by Al-Sisi to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The demonstrations, though sparsely attended, claimed the demonstrations regulation infringed freedom of expression.

But in all countries where the rule of law governs, there is a basic framework for public demonstrations. In law schools in the US, that framework is explained in three words: time, place and manner. The licencing authority specifies the time (limited), the place as away from access to public institutions, and the manner as never to be result in destruction or hooliganism. On that basis, those who advocate endless demonstrations are simply scofflaws and anarchists.

Up until now, the real problem for the New Egypt, with respect to freedom of expression, has been traced to the absence of any real media. It seems that the role of the Egyptian media in the creation of an informed public opinion has disappeared.

Now there is little left for the New Egypt to safeguard its gains except to fashion a code of honour for its media, which should include the requirement to learn, think, and think again before putting pen to paper. For freedom cannot exist without limitations defined by law and practise.

Egyptian scholar Nadia El-Shazly points out that there was “no outcry from the world media, nor any of the human rights organisations, against the French law that regulates demonstrations,” despite the violence that has recently attended them in Paris and elsewhere. The truth of the matter is this: journalism is an honourable profession. But in the New Egypt, it has become a profession devoid of honour.


The writer is a professor of law at New York University in the US.

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