One of Egypt’s most visible journalists at the moment is Mona Iraqi, a television personality who claimed to have tipped police off to the existence of a Cairo bathhouse where gay men were said to congregate then filmed the ensuing raid, one of several in an ongoing state crackdown on LGBT people.
An Egyptian court acquitted all 26 people who had been charged with “debauchery” and organizing “same-sex orgies” following the raid, which was widely denounced by rights advocates and other journalists. Iraqi’s show now reportedly faces cancellation as a result of the public relations fiasco surrounding the bathhouse case. But her role in the initial raid–reportedly alerting the police, then filming the arrests of the mostly naked men–underscores a close relationship between some journalists and Egyptian state institutions.
In 2011, the popular uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak also produced a chaotic moment of media freedom. But that brief moment of postrevolutionary openness ended following the military’s July 2013 removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi. In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Egyptian journalists faced a renewal of formal censorship and self-censorship implemented by editors and executives. Columnists criticizing the political establishment have had their articles banned by editors. Critical television personalities find themselves off the air. Journalists, satirists, and other media workers say their employers enforce constantly-shifting “red lines” barring criticism of the military, police, and the new president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
“Since the military-backed government took over, this censorship took place on a massive scale,” says Sherif Mansour, Middle East program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This was the first move against President Morsi when he was ousted by the military. They rounded up dozens of journalists and workers.”
“It was a clear message,” Mansour says, “that whatever independence, freedoms that existed from the time Mubarak was ousted to the time Morsi was ousted, was gone.”
Facing these pressures, Mona Iraqi is far from the only journalist doing pro-government work in Egypt these days. Last October, a group of Egyptian newspaper editors signed a declaration vowing to limit reports that would reflect negatively on state institutions such as the police, military, and judiciary. The editors also vowed to halt what they called “infiltration by elements supporting terrorism.” On the other hand, a vocal movement of journalists have refused to join the pro-regime bandwagon. More than 300 journalists signed a letter rejecting their editors’ declaration as a promise of voluntary censorship.
“The Egyptian press is made up in large part by those who are under the control of the authorities,” says Khaled Al Balshy of Iraqi. Balshy is a board member of Egypt’s Journalist Syndicate, the only state-sanctioned professional organization for journalists. “Between 60 and 65 percent of the Journalist Syndicate is made up of the national [state-owned] press, who are under the thumb of the state.” Balshy is part of a small contingent advocating for reform of the syndicate, and one of the authors of the letter rejecting the editors’ declaration in support of the state. The opposing letters escalated the debate over press freedom in Egypt, but the conflict between self-censoring institutions and their employees ended, for the moment, in a stalemate. “We are facing a situation of total control over the press, at the level of the text,” says Balshy.
Compounding the challenges facing Egyptian journalists is the perceived influence of media owners. Egypt’s major newspapers and television stations are divided between state-owned institutions and a variety of privately owned companies. But the privately owned outlets are often no more independent in their reporting than the state-backed press. The private media are owned primarily by so-called “anchor-investors,” tycoons who frequently maintain ties to the state.
“Behind the scenes there is a relationship between placing advertising and getting advertising revenue and putting out a pro-government media message,” said Naomi Sakr, a professor of media policy at the University of Westminster in London.
Mona Iraqi’s network, Al Kahera Wal Nas (“Cairo and the People”) is a model of a modern Egyptian private TV channel. The network was founded by a marketing mogul, Tarek Nour, who served as chief advertising advisor for the presidential campaign of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former armed forces chief who led the military takeover in 2013.
The channel also has a reputation for close cooperation with Egypt’s powerful internal security agencies. Prior to the Mona Iraqi scandal, the network was condemned for a show called The Black Box, which aired recordings obtained from wiretaps of private phone calls of leading opposition figures. The victims of the leaks included leaders such as former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei and one-time presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The show was suspended only after a dispute between the anchor, Abdel Rehim Ali, and the telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris, who himself owns a significant media empire.
In a separate incident last May, an anchor on a show called Al-Raees Wel Nas (“The President and the People”) turned his ire on an iconic graffiti artist known as Ganzeer. The anchor exposed Ganzeer’s real name accused him of being a “recruit of the Muslim Brotherhood,” an accusation that constitutes grounds for imprisonment in Egypt since Egypt’s military deposed President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. “What Mona Iraqi did is completely in keeping with that channel. It’s completely egregious what she did,” says Sakr.
Other journalists don’t seem troubled by the current media climate. In an interview on Monday in the brightly lit, white-walled offices of the privately owned Youm El-Sabea newspaper, editor Dandarawy Elhawary said that freedom has been “misunderstood.” “Freedom has been stretched,” he says. Regimes should not violate freedom of thought and expression, he says, but in Egypt, he faults “activists” on social media for launching false accusations at the police and other authorities. As he sat, he edited headlines for the next day’s edition of the paper, marking a laser-printed proof with a ballpoint pen. The press he said, should “support the state as long as there is a dangerous situation in the region, as long as the threat of terrorist groups continues.”Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo