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Chilling News: Egypt’s Military Council Questions the Media

June 3, 2011

The ruling military council has begun to take a more direct interest in what journalists and their sources say, and it’s not clear what this bodes for the emergent Egyptian news media.

On May 19, the council summoned editor Amr Khafagi and two reporters from Ash-Shourouk newspaper in order to question them about their story that former president Mubarak was going to ask for the people’s forgiveness and amnesty in exchange for his holdings. The story cited unnamed Egyptian and Arab officials, as well as an unidentified military official.The story was widely circulated and led to angry protests throughout Egypt.

The journalists were released after signing a pledge not to report on issues involving the armed forces that might cause “confusion” in the streets. The newspaper did not, however, print a retraction.

On May 31st, the council summoned journalist Reem Majed and blogger and activist Hussam Hamalawi. Hamalawi had appeared on Majed’s highly successful program Baladna bel Masry on ONTV and accused the military police of violating human rights and continuing to torture people in prison.

Writer Nabil Sharafeddine was also taken to the military council to answer questions about a statement he made on ONTV during the news coverage of the May 27 protests, during which he claimed that the military council had a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood to abstain from criticizing one another.

And the council summoned Sayyed Abdel Ati, the chief editor of the weekly Al Wafd opposition newspaper, and his reporter Hussam al-Sweifi to ask questions about a May 26 story headlined “The Details of the Forbidden Deal between the Brothers, the Salafis, and the Authority.”

On the surface, all this seems disappointingly like the kinds of actions the previous regime undertook to keep the press from overt criticism. In a June 1st editorial entitled “Military Council in Charge: Farewell to the Spring of the Media?” the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar said the relationship between the ruling military council and the journalists “has lately stepped into a new and dangerous phase.” A number of protesters staged a sit-in during the investigation, reportedly emphasizing several times that their criticism was directed only at the council’s dealings with the media and was not objecting to its political or military activities.

But in an interview with the Saudi-owned London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper (also June 1), Reem Majed gave her own account, which portrayed the military council as more concerned with finding out if the allegations were true so that they could investigate them and prosecute those responsible:

No one was accused of anything, not even my two guests. They were just asked a number of questions in regard to the issues that were debated during the show. The military court also asked Houssam al-Hemalawi to present a complaint before the prosecutor in regard to the violations which he said were taking place in prison. They also asked him to present pieces of evidence to back up these accusations in order to enable the military council to punish the people responsible for these violations.

“Freedom of speech is a right enjoyed by everyone and the military council does not intend to breach that right in any way…” she concluded.

Perhaps so. But the possibility that one might at any moment be summoned before a military council over which there are currently no constitutional controls, just the fickle weight of public opinion, must surely have a chilling effect on the media, and lead to a degree of self-censorship.

Mubarak also insisted that he had no intention of abridging anyone’s right to freedom of speech. But this was the technique commonly used by the Mubarak regime: summonses, questions about intentions, subtle threats, combined with an occasional prosecution, all of which led to a considerable caution on the part of most journalists.

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