Egyptian media has surrendered virtually all freedoms to support the new pharaoh, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Although Egypt long lost its democratic lustre, the sheen of its revolutionary days have been tarred by the return to power of the military junta. Using the cover of elections for president, few could have imagined the depths to which the country would stoop under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The country that inspired popular movements across the region, prompting masses in Middle Eastern capitals to rise and challenge their rulers by reclaiming control of state institutions has now completely surrendered whatever remnants of independence and civil liberties it was been left with. Dressing such hostile takeover under the label of “nationalism” and “patriotism,” the military regime has smothered any thought of freedom.
As Egyptians struggle to absorb the news that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak was offered a clean bill of legal health by the judiciary, reports have emerged that the Egyptian media has pledged allegiance to el-Sisi. It has promised to henceforth refrain from criticizing, challenging, or even questioning the authorities at such a critical time when the state is “at war with terrorism.”
According to several local and foreign media reports, three of Egypt’s most prominent newspapers — al-Ahram, al-Akhbar, al-Gomhouria — among others, signed a pledge of allegiance to el-Sisi, de facto surrendering all credibility and journalistic objectivity. As noted by French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, “Free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
If Egypt has become accustomed to seeing the regime erode all civil liberties under the ever-convenient cover of national security, such a direct infringement on freedom of the press has greatly unnerved Egyptians, to the point where many have begun to question the officials’ motives. In an unusual act of defiance, more than 600 journalists signed an online petition last month defending freedom of the press and rejecting censorship in all its forms, whether state-run or self-imposed. They argued that democratic values can never be stifled in the name of political convenience.
The journalists dismissed the editors-in-chief’s statement as “a futile attempt to create a one-voice media,” emphasizing that “fighting terrorism had nothing to do with voluntary abandonment of freedom of speech.” Dina Samak, deputy editor-in-chief of the English language semi-official al-Ahram Online and one of the journalists who signed the petition, said, “The editors’ statement is not worth the ink used in writing it.”
Samak’s scathing criticism was echoed by Khaled el-Bashi, a board member of the Journalists Syndicate and long-standing advocate for an independent press when he declared, “The terrorists will win when they can control the media, and the state will fall when it agrees on the same goal.”
But if there are many voices decrying Egypt’s descent into fascism, the military has proved yet again that it exercises far more gravitational pull than a people’s aspirations for freedom and rights. With much of Egypt’s press now firmly under the control of the executive, the country has quite decisively and, one might add rather dramatically, closed its revolutionary chapter to more tightly embrace military rule.
With a total of 17 editors-in-chief having vowed to not only present “ a united front against terrorism” but also to prevent the “infiltration by elements supporting terrorism” in their publications,” it is fair to say Egypt has entered an era of self-censorship and institutionalized exceptionalism. Bearing in mind that Cairo has already proved rather liberal in handing-out terror labels to organizations it perceives as threats to its rule or policies, most famously of which was the Muslim Brotherhood in December 2013, one can safely assume that “those elements” the press refers to in its pledge will loosely be applied to all those who feel so inclined as to criticize the state.
In a move that has been described by activists as the last song of Egypt’s press freedom, Emad el-Din, al-Shorouk’s editor-in-chief defended his position and that of his colleagues by arguing that the media industry aimed only to express its civic duty by backing official counter-terror efforts. “We wanted to deliver a message to citizens that the media is with the state in fighting terrorism,” he told NPR Radio, quickly adding, “At this time of heightened nationalism, the climate does not allow for any criticism of the government.”
Such statements, however, have done little to assuage the activists’ fears that Egypt is slipping further under the thumb of the military. Since former President Mohamed Mursi was ousted in a coup in July 2013, the military regime has conducted a violent and at times bloody crackdown against the press, targeting all voices of opposition.
According to the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, six journalists have been killed since July 2013 and dozens of press workers imprisoned on trumped-up charges. With the end of 2014, it appears Egypt’s spring has been cut short by an icy military winter storm. How long this state of affairs will continue is difficult to predict but people cannot be suppressed indefinitely and the lava of resentment building beneath the surface will explode sooner rather than later.