Egyptian journos wary of recent government actions

Newly appointed editors at state-owned publications and a court-ordered newspaper confiscation have journalists worried about press freedoms

Egyptian journalists are outraged over a pair of government decisions last week which they say curb media freedom and independence.

In the first of the two moves, the upper house of Egypt’s parliament, under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, appointed new editors of the state-owned newspapers, sparking outrage among journalists opposed to both the appointment process and the selection of figures seen as unqualified for chief editor posts.

Angered over the appointments, journalists at several privately-owned papers, which were not affected by the appointments, ran blank spaces in place of their columns on August 9 in solidarity with their colleagues in the state-owned press.

Then, on Saturday, a court ordered the confiscation the day’s edition of Ad-Dustour newspaper after it ran a rambling front-page editorial denouncing Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi for “fascism” and calling on the army to “defend the civil state.”

But both incidents were swept out of the headlines by Morsi’s stunning announcement on Sunday that he removed key generals, including defense minister Hussein Tantawi, from positions of power in the government. The preceding week’s skirmish over the newspapers joins the removal of generals in the ongoing battle for control of major institutions in Egypt in the wake of last year’s uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, of which the struggles over the role of the military and the drafting of the constitution are the most consequential.

For the journalists employed by the state-owned newspapers, last week’s appointments were the latest blow in a struggle for independence that dates back at least to the three-decade Mubarak era. Newspapers were nationalized under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, creating a system in which the ruling party selected editors of state newspapers. That led to a system where editor appointments were political rather than based on journalistic experience. Appointments today are effectively controlled by the upper house of parliament, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

But many journalists at state media would like to see the properties managed on the so-called BBC model, in which publicly owned institutions retain complete independence in editorial matters.

“We have long fought for such independence. They’re getting us back to square one,” said Yehia Ghanem, a senior journalist and editor at the flagship daily Al-Ahram. “That’s why the majority of journalists are very much opposed to the way those appointments have been handed down.”

Sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke behind his desk in a grey-walled office adjoining Al-Ahram’s downtown Cairo newsroom, Ghanem said he does not challenge the legal power of the upper house of parliament, also called the Shura Council, to appoint editors, although he, like other journalists, objected to the fact that the process was overseen by politicians, not professional journalists.

Ghanem also said he was concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood was remaking the single-party control of the old regime.

“We believe that this process is creating, again, another version of the National Party,” he said, referring to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. “We shouldn’t give a chance for tomorrow’s corrupt to be born today,” he said.

In spite of perceptions to the contrary, not all of the editors appointed by the Shura Council were Brotherhood partisans. In fact, the new editor of Al-Ahram is Abdel Nasser Salama, widely known for penning articles against the 2011 revolution. Considered a backer of the old regime who supported the now-sidelined generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Salama was suspended from his Al-Ahram column in 2010 for writing articles inciting hate against Christians.

The new editor of another major state-owned outlet, Al-Gomhuria, is Gamal Abdel Rahim, is also facing condemnation for inciting violence against religious minorities. An ongoing lawsuit against Abdel Rahim states that he called for the murder of a well-known Baha’i activist during a television appearance.

Political concerns aside, journalists expressed sheer bafflement at how the Shura Council could have come up with such poor candidates. Hisham Kassem, the former editor of the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, said, “There was nothing that could substantiate why these individuals were appointed. They [the Shura Council] were not professional in any way.”

The confrontation over the press only escalated on Saturday when a court ordered the confiscation of new copies of the privately-owned Dostour newspaper, after a number of complaints were filed accusing the paper of fueling sectarian strife during violence in the village of Dahshour that forced 100 Christian families to flee to neighboring villages.

That morning’s edition of the paper had featured a front-page editorial condemning Morsi, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of planning to set up an Islamic state, and predicting “killing and bloodshed … the cutting of the tongues of the media.” In spite of this hyperbole, journalists roundly condemned the decision to censor the newspaper.

Dostour itself has had a turbulent recent history. Once seen as a staunch opposition newspaper, it was purchased by El-Sayed El-Badawi, a businessman who leads the liberal opposition Al-Wafd Party. El-Badawi clashed with the newspaper’s outspoken chief editor, Ibrahim Eissa, ultimately sacking him.

After firing Eissa,Dostour’s editorial line shifted away from its previous anti-regime stance, and after the 2011 uprising, the newspaper’s former leadership started a new newspaper called Tahrir, which was one of the papers that joined the blank-columns protest last week.

Reached by phone on Sunday, Ibrahim Mansour, Tahrir’s executive editor and a former editor at Dostour, reiterated that Dostour had transformed into a completely different paper since he and Eissa left, but that he nevertheless unequivocally opposed the decision to the confiscate the editions.

He said taken together, the state media appointments and the censoring of Dostour amounted to “a continuation of the policies of the Mubarak regime.”

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Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo