Two months later, things became even more complex. In mid-April, the same week Mubarak and his sons were arrested on orders of the country’s interim military rulers and blogger Maikel Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the military,” the so-called Supreme Council distributed a letter to Egyptian editors ordering them not to report on the armed forces without advance permission. “Freedom of expression is guaranteed as long as it is respectful and doesn’t question the armed forces,” Ismail Etman, head of the armed forces’ moral affairs unit, told a news conference.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the order, which it said “effectively institutionalizes a military censorship regime in Egypt.” But Egyptian journalists say the restrictions are not as cut-and-dried as they might seem to outsiders. The backstory on the edict underscores the evolving relationship between the armed forces and the media in the new Egypt. “The military was the one remaining red line in Egyptian journalism in the past five years,” explains Ahram Online’s Hani Shukrallah. The generals tolerated the flak they have taken since assuming political power, but the breaking point came when troops entered Tahrir Square on April 8 to arrest a group of uniformed army officers who were speaking out against the generals. To the Council, that was mutiny, and the crackdown, which left two civilians dead, was purely an internal army affair. The move set off a media firestorm, particularly in the blogosphere. “They have a level of tolerance if you criticize their political decisions, but if you talk about the army as such, internal army reform or internal corruption, that is a no-no,” according to Shukrallah, who adds that “most journalists, including myself, would rather keep that file closed for the moment.”
Hisham Kassem, a founder of the leading independent daily Al Masri Al Youm, agrees, but says that reading tea leaves becomes tiresome. “It’s so much easier to come out and say, ‘This is unacceptable,’ than to make this very ambiguous statement which people are interpreting in different ways,” Kassem says. Adds Fouda: “You really have to walk a very fine line.”
Elsewhere in the region, regimes and their loyalists continue to lash out at reporters and bloggers: the deaths in Bahrainian custody of the founder of the nation’s leading independent daily and a blogger there, the detention of journalists and hacking of news websites in Syria, the disappearance of reporters in Libya, and their murder in Yemen. Across the Arab world, many regimes believe the solution to their problems is to kill the messenger, or at least jail her. Still, many Arab journalists interviewed for this article feel that there has been a fundamental transformation in Egypt and Tunisia that will ultimately resonate across the region.
“It’s a complete change. Complete,” says Abdul Wahab Badrakhan, a former editor at the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, referring to newspapers in the two countries. “The headlines, the front page, even the editorial page are now richer in news.” He believes this replacement of propaganda with actual reporting represents “a deep change in the practice of journalism in the Arab world.”
While Al Jazeera has been credited for the growing willingness of Arab journalist to push the envelope, a sort of “Al Jazeera effect,” the coming years could well see the rise of an “Egypt Effect,” as a freer Egyptian media reclaim their historic role as agenda-setters for the region. “The Egyptians are coming back, this time even better than before,” Hafez Mirazi boasts.
Daoud Kuttab is less sanguine. “I am not as optimistic as Hafez that it will just be the push of a button,” he says. “A lot of work has to be done.”
Beyond Egypt, Hussein Shobokshi, the Asharq Al Awsat columnist, believes Arab media are going to be “more liberalized, the ownership structure is going to change, you’ll see more private ownership,” he says. “The dinosaurs are going to fade away.” Not that he doesn’t worry. Shobokshi fears the newfound freedom could be squandered if the media do not move beyond inaccuracy, innuendo, and incitement. “We’re watching with a bit of concern and shock the malicious attacks that are taking place from reputable talk shows and columnists and journalists in Egypt,” he says. “That has created a very ugly environment” with unsubstantiated accusations and name-calling against former members of the Mubarak regime.
“Actually, it’s disgusting,” says Mirette Mabrouk, founder of the Daily Star of Egypt (now Daily News Egypt). “As much as this revolution has brought forth wondrous things, it’s unearthed a great many creepy-crawlies.”