Like many things in Egypt these days, the fight to save the Egypt Independent from termination went viral almost instantly. A cry for help by the newspaper’s editors earlier this year cited “the current economic crisis” as reason for the looming closure of the country’s most highly respected English-language newspaper, as well as the “political limitations manifested in rising restrictions on freedom of expression” since the election of President Mohamed Morsi.
On April 25, after weeks of international campaigns and fundraisers, the executive management of the Independent abruptly pulled the plug on its operations, days earlier than scheduled. A statement from the editorial staff read:
Four years after the birth of Egypt Independent, the management of Al-Masry Media Corporation has informed our editorial team that our print and online news operation is being shut down.
Because we owe it to our readers, we decided to put together a closing edition, which would have been available on 25 April, to explain the conditions under which a strong voice of independent and progressive journalism in Egypt is being terminated.
Opened four years ago as an English language division to privately owned Arabic daily El Masry El Youm, the newspaper was one of few that chronicled the real beginnings of the Egyptian revolution, from the economic deterioration to the death of Khaled Said, brutally beaten to death by police in Alexandria in 2010—coverage of which went viral on social media websites, planting the seed for the January 25, 2011 popular uprising.
“This kind of press played an important role in the wave of contentious politics that started in 2005 and onwards,” said Lina Attalah, editor in chief of the now defunct Egypt Independent. The paper’s closure has made headlines around the world, as it represents a blatant setback for a revolution hard fought and now, seemingly, coming apart at the seams.
Like a handful of news organizations in Egypt today, Egypt Independent lured a new generation of journalists that were not schooled in the art of self-censorship, once a necessity to operate safely as a reporter in Egypt. These newly untethered journalists put emphasis on the post-uprising day-to-day struggles, as well as on more mainstream coverage of street battles, sectarian strife, and rape. Most importantly, the paper provided a medium for bilingual Egyptians to speak to people beyond their borders with an intellectual, analytical, nuanced voice, often tackling issues that would otherwise not get attention in the international media.
The Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt is also home to its most widely read newspaper, state-run Al-Ahram, and so Egypt’s standards for journalism impact and influence many other countries in the region.
And Attalah says that, though the revolution was just over two years ago, an initial media openness is now changing. Since the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in elections last year, promises to adhere to many revolutionary demands, particularly those linked to free press, were shelved as President Morsi quickly became the target of public scrutiny for a number of controversial executive orders, including drafting a new constitution late last year despite a boycott from the opposition or religious minorities.
“One thing I am seeing now is less and less commitment to the revolution and its values,” Attalah said. “I’m seeing a lot of media now playing part in the current local polarization of society and, while the media should normally hold the authorities accountable, it is playing into identity politics more than anyone else.”
That’s because pressure is mounting against journalists and television presenters who criticize the president. A handful of talk show presenters are currently under investigation by the state for “violating journalist ethics in order to incite sedition and chaos and threatening national peace,” state-run Al-Ahram reported in March. Among them are Lamees al-Hadidy, Amro Adeeb, and Youssef al-Husseiny, hosts of popular talk shows on private Egyptian channels CBC, OnTV, and Orbit, respectively.
The inquiry comes alongside that of internationally renowned satirist Bassem Youssef —known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”—on similar charges. Youssef, whose television program, Elbernameg, has soared to immense popularity across the Arab world, is also charged with “insulting Pakistan” and “spreading atheism.”
“They are running out of ideas,” Youssef said from New York last week during an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Long before the revolution, journalists were fighting hard for the rights presumably won in 2011. Egypt’s 1952 coup d’état against British colonialism came at the expense of a once vibrant and heterogeneous media. Then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned a multi-party system and imposed strict government regulations over the country’s media organizations. Political parties were phased back into the system during the presidency of Anwar Sadat, but journalists who criticized the government still faced strict penalties. In the decades that followed, low-paid journalists battled jail, beatings, sexual assault, and torture. And while there was an effort to develop journalistic professionalism, the pre-revolution media landscape offered few opportunities.
This month, a number of journalists were targeted in violent uprisings outside Cairo’s Media City after protesters tried to penetrate blockades and ransack the studios of several independent television networks. At least 13 journalists were also attacked in Cairo and Alexandria last week as protesters for-and-against reforming the country’s judiciary faced off.
Newspapers and broadcasters loyal to the new Muslim Brotherhood regime assert that they are receiving similar harassment from the liberal media, and insist that the leftist media is looking to topple the regime.
“While all parties in Egypt should halt the attacks on journalists covering political events, President Mohamed Morsi has a special obligation to demand that his supporters stop this behavior,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement last week. “The evidence shows that most of these assaults are being committed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have established a months-long pattern of intimidating and harassing the news media.”