Egypt: free speech under attack

With the sacking of a prominent newspaper editor, the political elite can no longer be held to accou

Just two days before Egypt's most dissident newspaper editor was forced out of his job (on 5 October), he sat down to type a remarkably prescient editorial. "It's impossible for the Egyptian regime to give up election rigging," wrote Ibrahim Eissa. "So the solution it has devised is that instead of putting a stop to rigging, it will put a stop to the talk about rigging. Hence the steps to rein in the satellite media; up next are newspapers. Perhaps soon we'll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians' freedom of expression on the internet. And several understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt."

Forty-eight hours after that column hit the newsstands, Eissa - a 46-year-old who in recent years has done more than any other individual to challenge the state's hegemony over public narratives on Egypt and its politics - was summarily sacked. The removal of Eissa from Al-Dostour, a leading daily newspaper, was a personal blow to a man who has spent his entire career on the mercurial borders of Egypt's vibrant (though limited) world of officially-sanctioned independent media, but it also represents something far more chilling and expansive - and throws up a personal challenge to every journalist working in Egypt today.

The breadth and clout of independent media organs has ebbed and flowed in recent years in accordance with the sensitivities of Egypt's authoritarian Mubarak regime. At times of relative "liberalisation", contrarian voices have flourished - not as a result of government beneficence, as ruling party NDP officials would have one believe, but rather because of the technological innovations (satellite television, the internet, mobile phones) which have made top-down mastery of the media in the 21st century an absurdity (if not a complete impossibility), as well as the government's need to demonstrate a degree of glasnost to its western allies and sponsors.

Exploiting the changing media climate to subvert the rules of the game has long been the goal of Eissa and many others like him, determined as they are to offer sceptical audiences an alternative slant to the rose-tinted, photoshopped window onto Egypt and its leaders that gets served up by the state-controlled press with formulaic consistency. In pursuit of this end they have benefitted, just as the street-level opposition movements to the government have benefitted, from the canny utilisation of political events like Israel's assaults on Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008-09, which evoke angry sentiments and throw into sharp relief the detachment of the ruling elite from the mass of public opinion.

Meanwhile at times of potential political volatility, or generally when the regime feels up against it, the space in which criticism is tolerated gets reined in, usually through a flurry of legal cases, forced resignations and bureaucratic thuggery. As someone who has always been pushing the boundaries of that space - and a veteran himself of many a courtroom battle with the powers that be - Eissa was important not just for what he achieved, but also for what he revealed about the febrile state of free expression in the Arab World's largest country. From the establishment of Al-Dostour in 1995, to its closure in 1998 and triumphant re-emergence in 2005, right up to the trials, sentences and pardons of 2007 onwards, Eissa has been a bellwether for the health of the independent media sector, dredging ever-shifting invisible red lines to the surface - normally by stepping over them.

Which is why his sacking last week by Al-Dostour's new owner, Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, tells us something deeply worrying about the direction in which Egypt is heading. Al-Badawi is the president of Al-Wafd, a political party that, like the rest of Egypt's official opposition, exists primarily to legitimise the one-party rule of the NDP by coating Egypt's parliament in a sheen of superficial plurality. Al-Wafd are widely believed to have struck a deal with the regime which will offer them a larger share of seats in next month's rigged parliamentary elections in exchange for assistance in neutering the less malleable elements of the opposition, including former UN nuclear weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei who called for a boycott of the polls - a call that Al-Wafd has unsurprisingly chosen to ignore. Ever since Al-Badawi took over Al-Dostour, rumours have been circulating that he would be employed as the government's tool to silence Eissa, and so it has proved; after reeling off a series of pious promises regarding the sanctity of Al-Dostour's editorial independence, Al-Badawi swiftly conjured up a fake controversy over the publication of a front-page op-ed by ElBaradei (on the anniversary of Egypt's 1973 war with Israel) and used it as a pretext for giving Eissa his marching orders.

Many of the newspaper's staff walked out in response, claiming that political pressure had been behind the sacking. They were right. In recent weeks prominent dissidents Alaa al-Aswany and Hamdi Qandeel have also had their public platforms removed (in this case regular columns in Al-Shorouk), part of a wider process of other independent dailies being corralled into self-censorship. The result is that the space available in the print media for holding the country's business and political elite to account is being slowly but steadily curtailed.

A parallel crackdown is taking place on independent voices in the satellite media - which has seen four channels shut down, popular TV chatshows hauled off air, a series of high-profile resignations (including Eissa himself, from the popular Baladna Bel-Masri show), and the launch of a new channel by regime acolyte Ahmed Ezz, as well as this week's new set of regulations that effectively puts all live TV news broadcasting under state control. It is clear that a sustained, organised and state-orchestrated operation is underway to muzzle any influential voices of dissent as Egypt enters a period of unprecedented political uncertainty. With the 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak looking increasingly frail, succession plans for his son running into trouble, and both parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled over the next year, never has it been more important for Egypt's leaders to re-establish a semblance of dominion over the flow of information reaching the public.

Nor is this pressure restricted to media outlets. NGOs continue to fight attempts to criminalise their work following the circulation of a draft law earlier this year which would slash away the independence of civil society organisations and suffocate government criticism. New restrictions on SMS messaging have just been unveiled that will hinder the opposition's ability to mobilise support on the ground. And elsewhere the instruments of state control over Egypt's population remain shrouded in secrecy: the broadcasting and even basic reporting of court cases - such as the trial of two policemen alleged to have beaten an Alexandrian man to death in broad daylight after he posted an online video of corrupt officers apparently engaging in the narcotics trade - has now been prohibited. In addition, official candidacy information for the parliamentary vote is no longer published publicly and the workings of the Higher Election Commission , a government-controlled body who have replaced judicial supervision of elections and presided over this year's Shura Council poll with spectacular efficiency (the NDP won over 90 per cent of the seats), continue to be a mystery.

Yes, spaces still exist for free expression and debate in Egypt, and the scope of media freedom remains wider than what's on offer in many of the country's regional neighbours, but there is undoubtedly a new and distressing air of intimidation emanating from the regime at the moment, and one with potentially very dangerous consequences. "Everything is exposed," wrote former presidential candidate Ayman Nour on Twitter in the aftermath of Eissa's removal. Columnist Issandr El-Amrani has called it the end of the "Cairo spring" and the start of a "Cairo autumn"; blogger Baheyya concludes simply that "the government is intent on controlling all sources of alternative knowledge."

Eissa himself has likened this multi-pronged crackdown to a stage being set for the magician's final act, and some are now asking what role international journalists will be assigned within the theatrics. In his now infamous penultimate editorial Eissa listed a number of places where the state's fist would strike next, and found to his personal cost that his first guess - newspapers - was entirely correct. If the rest of his predictions are as accurate then the "representatives of the western media'" will soon also be targeted - not, in all probability, by the sort of harassment and intimidation which Egyptian colleagues have to contend with, but rather, according to Eissa, through some sort of "understanding" which foreign editorial desks will reach with the regime.

Here I think Eissa may be wrong, partly because the political and PR repercussions of a wholesale assault on the foreign media are too risky (though that doesn't mean that individual correspondents won't necessarily be singled out, as some have been in the past) and partly for a more depressing reason: that such a move would achieve very little. By and large the western media apparatus does little to interrogate the regime-friendly prism through which events in Egypt are seen by the outside world; indeed it does rather more to strengthen it. This is a prism which gets peddled aggressively by lobbyists in Washington and London, who are paid handsome sums by the Egyptian government to spread one message - Mubarak equals stability - and rarely do we see that narrative challenged.

That's not to say that western media coverage flatters the president or his government; human rights abuses are certainly documented and protests get reported, albeit without the sort of prominence afforded to opposition activity in countries which aren't led by "moderate" allies of the west. But through its selection and presentation of news from Egypt the international press often subtly entrenches the status quo perspective on Egypt in the west, and that in turn helps subtly reinforce the status quo configuration of political power in Cairo.

I've written elsewhere in more detail about what that perspective involves and why it receives such a sympathetic airing in the print columns and TV news segments of the western media. Without repeating myself at length here, suffice to say it comprises a misleading analysis of Egypt's neoliberal economic reform programme, skewed reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood (describing it continuously in the terms of an omnipotent threat to the survival of Egypt as a liberal, secular state rather than an complex, diffuse organisation that has a symbiotic relationship with the ruling elite) and a tendency towards supposedly depoliticised "colour stories", which exaggerate the cleavage between "religious fundamentalists" and "secular forces" and leave many genuinely remarkable political developments, like the rise of the labour movement, completely unreported. All of which strengthens the message about Egypt and its current government that the Mubarak regime is desperate to sell to the international community, in order to preserve from that community the uninterrupted flow of political support and hard cash that the regime's survival depends on.

As journalists like Joris Luyendijk and Nick Davies have painstakingly explained, the institutionalisation of misleading news reporting has dizzyingly deep roots and is hardly confined to Egypt alone. But the present media crackdown makes it all the more important for the international press to raise their game and shine an even harsher spotlight on the social, political and economic violations perpetrated against Egyptian citizens by their rulers, particularly with sham elections looming just around the corner. Although it can never be a sustainable alternative to good quality domestic reporting, international press reports can serve as a vital enabler to local media outlets. In the past, some newspapers and TV shows have been able to skirt around local restrictions that were hindering publication of a certain story by reporting instead on the reports of foreign correspondents, who face less constraints going about their work. And in the best of cases the coverage of foreign media outlets can in its own right serve to inform Egyptians who can access it on the internet, carving out a small but increasingly vital island of free expression and in a limited way helping to defend Egyptian citizens against the egregious excesses of the state.

With other sources of debate and dissent being shut down, it's imperative that foreign journalists exploit their inherent logistical advantages to the full. The government is trying to tame every organ of scrutiny within Egypt's borders; in this climate it's more crucial than ever that we do not tame ourselves.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder