The month-long suspension of a privately-owned Egyptian TV channel for “defamation and incitement to violence” has triggered an outcry in Egyptian media circles amid fears of regression in freedom of expression gained after the country’s January 2011 revolution.
Al-Faraeen was closed down last week as Egyptian authorities threatened to revoke its license for “inflammatory language” used by the station’s presenters. The channel’s controversial talkshow host and owner Tawfik Okasha is now under investigation by the public prosecutor after a lawsuit was filed against him by Islamists who claimed he had repeatedly “defamed, slandered and incited violence” against them. During his programme, he aired a video allegedly showing Muslim extremists executing a Christian in Tunisia, and asked “how such people will govern” in an obvious reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. In June, newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi also filed a lawsuit against Okasha, accusing him of “defamation and slander” after the host devoted an entire episode of his programme to criticising the Muslim Brotherhood and the president.
In recent weeks, Okasha’s channel has shown increased bias against the Muslim Brotherhood, after adopting a clear anti-revolutionary stance since last year’s uprising. According to critics, Okasha vilified pro-democracy protesters in the months following the January 2011 mass uprising, accusing protesters gathered in Tahrir Square of being paid agents and thugs. He later showed a clear bias towards President Morsi’s rival Ahmed Shafik, widely believed to have been the preferred candidate of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Following Morsi’s victory, Okasha suddenly turned against SCAF, despite having fervently supported them earlier — and accused them of “selling the country to the Muslim Brotherhood”.
The suspension of the channel comes as Mubarak-era journalists wage a war of words against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), accusing its members of inciting physical violence against them and fuelling fears of a brutal crackdown on journalists critical of Islamists. Prominent talk show host Amr Adeeb described Islamists as backwards in a clip that went viral online, and said he feared that they would take the country back to the dark ages. Adeeb added that he was no coward, and would speak the truth — even if it meant “being killed at the hands of Islamists”.
Khaled Salah, editor in Chief of El Youm El Sabe’ last week claimed he was assaulted by “bearded” demonstrators protesting outside the Media Production City in the 6th of October district on the outskirts of Cairo. The demonstrators who allegedly attacked Salah had been demanding the purging of media institutions and protesting the anti-Islamist bias on talk shows hosted by Mubarak loyalists. Salah reported the incident to the police, accusing members of the FJP of being behind the attack .
The Muslim Brotherhood has denied the allegations, insisting that its members do not use force or violence against their critics. In a statement on the Islamist group’s official English language website Ikhwanweb, the FJP condemned the assault, stating that attacks on journalists were “totally unacceptable and that freedom of the press should not be suppressed in any way”.
Other Muslim Brotherhood leaders also rejected the accusations insisting they were “a deliberate attempt to tarnish the image of the Brotherhood”.
However, on the same website, Qutb Al-Arabi, Chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood Journalists’ Committee urges journalists to report responsibly and to guard against spreading rumours, sowing sedition and inciting violence.
Since Morsi became president, he has been locked in a power struggle with the military — one that has been widely reflected in the media. Several Mubarak-era journalists, editors and TV presenters have chosen to side with SCAF in the past month. According to analysts, this is tied to a belief that the military is the higher authority in the country. The media war against the Muslim Brotherhood intensified after President Morsi in June issued a decree to reinstate the dissolved Islamist-majority Parliament. Following the move, airwaves were dominated by denunciations by critics, who called the decision “unconstitutional” and warned that “it would turn the country into a lawless jungle”.
In a move widely seen as a blow to freedom of expression, a court this week ordered the confiscation of Saturday’s issue of the independent daily Al-Dostour — known for its anti-revolution, pro-military coverage. Several complaints were filed against the daily’s Christian owner — accusing the paper of fuelling sedition. In June, the paper had warned of a “bloodbath” in Egypt if Islamist candidate Morsi lost the presidential election. The offices of Al Gomhouriya Publishing House, where the paper is printed, were allegedly raided by security forces earlier this week. The newspaper did not appear on newsstands that day, and the owner accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the attack.
The paper still posted the censored issue online. The frontpage banner warned that “the Brotherhood would lead Egypt to destruction”, and urged Egyptians to “unify ranks with the military against the Islamist threat”. The Muslim Brotherhood also faced harsh criticism this past week after the Islamist-dominated Shura Council, upper house of parliament replaced the chief editors of Egypt’s state-sponsored newspapers — a move described by critics as “a new aggression against freedom of the press” and “an attempt to Islamise national newspapers”.
MP Alaa El-Attar was quoted by the state-run Al Ahram as saying “The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to impose its control over the media. The group wants to prevent any criticism of either the Brotherhood or the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi.”
The new Islamist Minister of Information Salah Abdel Maksud has meanwhile sought to allay these concerns. At a meeting with heads of departments of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union on Thursday, he vowed “to transform Egyptian media from a state-controlled propaganda tool into an information powerhouse”.
Critics remain unconvinced however and there are growing fears that the newfound press freedoms are at risk of being reversed. Protesters who took to the streets on Saturday to protest the closure of El Fara’een chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans. “The Brotherhood and the former ruling party the NDP are one and the same”, they cried.After President Morsi’s latest decisions to dismiss top military officials , it remains to be seen if Egypt’s media will again switch sides after the President asserted his authority over the military.
Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.