CAIRO—The screens went black around 9pm. It was night of July 3, and Egypt’s military chief, General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, announced on state television that President Mohamed Morsi had been removed from power following huge protests. Then five Islamist-leaning television stations were immediately taken off the air.
As Sisi spoke, police vehicles converged on Media Production City, the desert complex outside Cairo that houses Egypt’s satellite television industry. Officers in civilian clothes entered the studio of Misr25 which, like Morsi, was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and began leading journalists out to the waiting vans.
Out in the parking lot, Hasan ElBanna, 29, an administrative coordinator for the station, tried to creep away, but a journalist from an anti-Morsi channel spotted him. He shouted to the police, “That guy’s from Misr25!” The officers seized him, but he again managed to escape while the officers were preoccupied with the news anchors. While the police drove about 200 detained journalists to a security installation, he spent the night hiding at a friend’s house before returning home.
Misr25’s activism for the Brotherhood’s cause raised questions about its credibility as a news organization, but the fact that the channel could operate freely was a sign that the direct censorship of the era of President Hosni Mubarak era was over. Now, under the interim military-backed regime, censorship is back. Ten media organizations have been shuttered or pulled from the airwaves, including Al Jazeera’s Egypt affiliate and Turkey’s state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation. In the two months after the military ousted Morsi, censorship returned, five journalists were killed and 80 were arbitrarily detained, according to Reporters Without Borders.
I first met Hasan weeks after Morsi’s inauguration, in July 2012, when I profiled Misr25 for CJR. He says it’s a coincidence that he shares his name with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. He studied at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, and he was openly critical of Morsi at the time. Nevertheless, he was content to be working for a station run by professionals and whose mission he supported. His job consisted of coordinating with the network’s correspondents throughout Egypt.
When I met him again this month in a sleek but empty Cairo coffee shop, he looked like he had aged far more than the 15 months that had passed since our first meeting in Media Production City. Eight of his friends and colleagues had died in the military-backed government’s clampdown on the opposition, he said. Now working as a freelancer, he spent much of his summer helping to coordinate coverage from the pro-Morsi protest camp in Giza’s Nahda Square. On August 14, the security forces stormed that sit-in and another in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, killing hundreds in Egypt’s deadliest moment of political violence in decades. “Egypt? It feels like it’s not my country anymore,” Hasan said. “You can get killed. You can get shot. You can get arrested anytime.”
In the months leading up to the June 30 protests that triggered the military coup four days later, Egypt’s media splintered into two hostile camps, one supporting Morsi, the other opposed. Both sides slung vitriol at the other. The anti-Morsi camp denounced the Brotherhood as “terrorists.” The Islamist media were often no better. Misr25 commentator Mohamed al-Omdah threatened to declare “jihad” if demonstrators attacked the Morsi’s palace. The military later cited “incitement to violence” in its justification for censorship of the five pro-Morsi channels.
The deep political chasm in Egypt’s media meant many in the anti-Morsi camp failed to defend Islamist-leaning journalists. “Because of the polarization of the press that started under Morsi, a lot of the people who were counted as opposition or critical of Morsi did not speak out against military censorship,” said Sherif Mansour of the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the author of a CPJ report on the military’s press freedom violation.
Though the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak yielded a new openness in the media, the Morsi government’s record on press freedom was far from flawless. Using the legal framework left over from the Mubarak era, Morsi had tightened his grip on state media and pursued criminal charges against critics like satirist Bassem Yousef. As a result, Mansour said, the anti-Morsi media’s silence after the military coup was “a disappointing sign, because many of those were a few days earlier victims of a crackdown by Morsi and his allies.” But media rights advocates say Morsi’s failings do not justify the military-backed government’s clampdown. “No matter who is in power and who is in opposition, it shouldn’t be a political discussion,” Mansour said. “It should be a principled discussion.”