Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

For freedom of the press

Against a background of growing threats to freedom of expression, Egypt’s journalists and writers are continuing their battle to guarantee media freedom, writes Ahmed Morsy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Newspaper chief editors and writers, as well as the chairmen of a few private satellite channels, held their second meeting at the headquarters of the independent Al-Watan newspaper on Friday to discuss ways of responding to the current attacks targeting the press and media. The meeting was part of a series organised by the Press Syndicate board and the National Committee for Defending Freedom of Expression.
The assembled writers, through the recently-founded Front for Defending Freedom of Expression, also launched a campaign earlier this week designed to counteract what they called the intimidation used by conservative Islamists that could, the intellectuals said, return the country to the restrictive media atmosphere that prevailed under ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.
The front’s first meeting was held at the headquarters of the liberal Wafd Party on 21 December, and Al-Fagr newspaper will host the next meeting, due to be held on Saturday. Front members issued a statement following their second meeting called “In Defence of the Citizen’s Right to a Free Media”, which was distributed by Deputy Chairman of the Press Syndicate Gamal Fahmi during a press conference.
“In the light of the systematic attacks targeting the media and aiming at silencing all voices that oppose political despotism under the name of religion, independent and aligned newspaper chief editors and the chairmen of private satellite channels, together with a number of members of the Press Syndicate, met to discuss how to respond to this dictatorship campaign,” the statement read.
According to the statement, the attendees expressed their rejection of the new constitution, approved by 63.8 per cent of those voting in the recent referendum, which they said was prepared by an Islamist-dominated assembly that did not reflect the diversity of the Egyptian people and the multiplicity of its intellectual beliefs.
As a result, the constitution violated public and private freedoms, particularly the freedom of opinion and belief and the freedom of the press and media, and it violated principles of social justice, the statement said.
The statement stressed the importance of drawing up a list of those considered to be the enemies of the media and public freedoms, such that newspapers and satellite channels could coordinate to confront them professionally and legally. A committee was assigned to take legal measures against anyone involved in incitement against journalists and media professionals, the statement added.
“We formed a committee of media figures Hamdi Kandil, Salah Eissa and Hussein Abdel-Razek, in addition to lawyer Abdallah Khalil and media expert Yasser Abdel-Aziz, in order to develop alternative guarantees for the freedom of the press and the media and secure their independence,” Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Freedoms are at risk under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and we are seeing an unprecedented crisis facing media freedom,” Fahmi said, referring to last month’s attack on the headquarters of the Wafd Party and the Islamists’ sit-in that cordoned off the Media Production City, as well as the hostile statements made by Islamist preachers against media freedom.
Meanwhile, Doaa Al-Adl, a cartoonist at the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, has been questioned by Prosecutor-General Talaat Abdallah on charges of insulting the prophet Adam. Published on 20 December, a cartoon by Al-Adl depicted Adam and Eve standing on a cloud and underneath an apple tree, while a figure with angel wings and a halo standing in front of them said that the couple would never have been expelled from heaven if they had voted “yes” in the referendum.
Following a wave of public criticism, the newspaper removed the cartoon from its online publication. Al-Adl said the decision to remove the cartoon came after several people had posted scathing comments referring to the drawing on its website.
Khaled Al-Masri, a Salafi lawyer who sued Al-Adl, also sued Naguib Sawiris, the owner of Al-Masry Al-Youm in his complaint filed two weeks ago. Al-Masri said that “the portrayal of the prophets is a red line that we will not tolerate being crossed.”
In response, Al-Adl said that “anyone who tries to draw someone with a beard will now have it interpreted as an attack on religion.” She also highlighted the recent accusations made against satirist Bassem Youssef and TV presenter Ibrahim Eissa.
Youssef, popularly dubbed the Middle East’s Jon Stewart and host of the satirical TV show “Al-Bernameg” (The Programme) also faces investigation after a lawyer filed a complaint earlier last month accusing him of insulting President Mohamed Morsi. The case against Youssef is the latest in a series of lawsuits targeting journalists and bloggers over recent months that threaten to undermine freedom of expression in Egypt, according to Fahmi.
Earlier, a complaint had been filed by former member of Islamic Jihad Ismail against prominent opposition talk show host Eissa, accusing him of blasphemy. Ismail alleged that Eissa, an outspoken critic of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, had mocked verses of the Quran in an episode of his show “Hona Al-Qahera” broadcast in November on the privately owned channel Al-Qahera wal-Nas.
Fahmi said that a new logo would be published in various newspapers and on TV channels starting from Wednesday emphasising the citizen’s right to a genuinely independent media. Prominent columnists and talk-show hosts would support the campaign in order to guarantee its success, he added.
“We will use all peaceful means to resist the tyranny and repression practiced by the regime and its followers from the Islamist currents against the media,” Fahmi said. “The revolution toppled Mubarak and his tyrannical regime only to find that the newly-elected regime has a fascist project that aims at silencing and muzzling the media,” he said.
Asked how his campaign would deal with the figures it had black-listed, Fahmi said that “there are some anti-liberal figures, mainly from the Islamist currents, who are trying to incite the public against the media and journalists. We will file lawsuits against them through a judicial committee relating to the front that will be formed for the purpose.”
In order to deal with such figures professionally, Yehia Kallash, spokesman of the National Committee for Defending Freedom of Expression, said that newspapers and TV channels attached to the front would coordinate to take action against them.
“It may be through not publishing pieces about them, or even not publishing their pictures, as well as stopping them from appearing on the satellite channels,” Kallash told the Weekly. He added that each newspaper and channel would choose its own methods.
Regarding the release of the names on the list, Fahmi said that it would not be officially published. “Nevertheless, the list includes the names of ultraconservative Salafi cleric and Islamist presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, Khairat Al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood official who was the first Brotherhood candidate for the presidency before being disqualified, and Essam Al-Erian, vice-president of the Freedom and Justice Party, who has recently been selected as the leader of the majority in the Shura Council,” Fahmi said.
Last month, supporters of former presidential candidate Abu Ismail staged a two-week sit-in outside the Media Production City in 6 October City, where several independent media outlets are based, calling for a purge of the media and demanding the “cleansing of the media of certain talk-show hosts.” Abu Ismail supporters were also accused of attacking the Wafd Party headquarters in Dokki, as well as the party’s newspaper offices.
On Sunday, former chairman of the Press Syndicate Makram Mohamed Ahmed called upon the syndicate council to issue a decree that would oblige all Egyptian newspapers, magazines and TV stations to stop dealing with Abu Ismail. “We approved this request, and it is the way we intend to deal with the other names on the black list,” Fahmi said.
Explaining the motivations behind the steps now being taken by journalists and media men, Kallash said that “abuses and violations of freedom of expression are increasing. It started with the dismissal of chief editors, the seizure of copies of opposition newspapers, and the referring of journalists and TV presenters for investigation on charges of insulting the president.”
TV presenter Mahmoud Saad was questioned last month after his guest, psychiatrist Manal Omar, described Morsi as a “psychopath” on air. Omar was also investigated on charges of insulting Morsi after the presidency took legal action against her. Similar complaints of insulting the president were filed by the presidency in December against journalists Khaled Salah and Ola Al-Shafei, both of whom have been summoned for questioning by the Cairo Appeals Court.
Al-Shafei faced investigation for her article, published in the privately-owned Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper, of which Salah is editor-in-chief, on the violent clashes that took place outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Al-Shafei accused Morsi of being responsible for the clashes in the article.
In October, the Shura Council dismissed the state-owned Al-Gomhuriya newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Gamal Abdel-Rehim, after it published a story claiming that former members of the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had been banned from travelling due to corruption investigations against them.
Copies of the Al-Dostour independent daily were seized in August, and its then editor, Islam Afifi, was charged with defaming the president. Afifi was subsequently released after Morsi issued a decree banning the detention of journalists for media-related offences.
For his part, Essam Sultan, vice-president of the Islamist-oriented Wasat Party, demanded on Facebook last week that Morsi waive all charges against journalists. He also called on the Shura Council to reduce the punishment for anyone convicted of insulting the president to a fine, instead of the current penalty of imprisonment.
“The move to protect freedom of expression from threats of oppression is not a new decision, as the newly-established front is part of the National Committee for Defending Freedom of Expression that was formed in July. At that time, the Committee expressed its fears regarding public freedoms in the constitution being drafted at that time, especially the freedom of expression and creativity,” Kallash said.
In a recently leaked video, Salafi preacher and Nour Party member Yasser Burhami, also a leading member of the constituent assembly that drafted the constitution, said that “this constitution imposes restrictions that have never been imposed before by any Egyptian constitution,” and it “places restrictions on freedom of thought, expression, and creativity”. His statements came during a conference with religious experts and Salafi preachers on 22 November 2012.
“Burhami’s statements indicate the nature of the situation we are now living through,” Fahmi commented. The leaked video, released on 21 December, received wide criticism, especially from human rights advocates. However, Burhami later claimed that it had been taken out of context.
He added that his comments were made when addressing a group of preachers coming from a conservative Salafist base. The main intention was to close down allegations that those voting “yes” to the constitution were sinners, Burhami said.  

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