During my course in “Media, Culture and Society in the Islamic World” at the American University in Cairo (AUC), a student shared a cartoon with me. A school counselor is advising a young student: “So you want to be a journalist? Are you prepared to move to Cyprus?”
The joke, of course, is that one cannot seriously seek to be a journalist in the political environment of Egypt. Many Egyptian journalists who write critical editorials or report on sensitive subjects live abroad to avoid reprisals.
Of course, there is no censorship in Egypt, as President Mubarak has stated on more than one occasion. Any private publisher is free to publish anything they like as long as it is within the law.
Ah, yes. The law. It is against the law to criticize Hosni Mubarak or any other member of the ruling family. It is against the law for journalists and broadcasters to say or write things that might damage “the social peace”, “national unity”, “public order” and “public values”. It is against the law to “damage Egypt’s reputation abroad” by criticizing the government in foreign media.
Violating these rules can lead to imprisonment, suspension or cancellation of broadcasting licenses, confiscation of equipment, and fines .
In 2008 Ibrahim Eissa, the outspoken editor of Al Dustour newspaper, was sentenced to two months in prison on charges of insulting President Mubarak for reporting–accurately, it turned out–about his health. Eissa subsequently had to fight civil suits by NDP members. Ultimately he was pardoned by President Mubarak. Eissa is wealthy, educated and well-connected. The government has no desire to actually keep him in prison. Rather, the case sent a chill through the Egyptian press, as it was intended to do.
In 2010, after his newspaper was bought by a new publisher, Eissa was fired for agreeing to publish an article by Muhammed al-Baradei calling on Egyptians to boycott the unmonitored 2010 elections.
Part of the genius of the regime is that the laws have been inconsistently enforced. No journalist, blogger or social scientist knows when the police may show up because they’ve crossed an invisible line. This encourages cautious self-censorship.
Censorship is also imposed arbitrarily on some institutions and not others. At one point, for example, the American University in Cairo (AUC) was specifically targeted for censorship and several books taught in courses there were banned by direct order of the NDP. One could find copies of one of these books, Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad: Prophet of Islam, in the library at the national Cairo University, and buy another, the English edition of Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret, in bookstores around the university–but not in the AUC library or bookstore.
Ironically even the Muslim Brotherhood—that religious organization whose possible leadership role in a democratic Egypt is so feared by many outsiders—has been an outspoken critic of the regime’s censorship, even championing racy novels like The Yacoubian Building which hardly portrays the Brotherhood in a positive light.
During the uprising, Al-Jazeera has been a heroic model of intrepid journalism in the face of censorship. At one point, they were threatened. Subsequently, six key people were arrested and taken into custody. Shortly after, police entered and confiscated equipments and turned off power. When the regime cut off their access to NileSAT, the satellite pipeline through which their coverage was broadcast live to the world, a coalition of other Arab networks interrupted their own programming to share the airwaves and enable Al-Jazeera to continue to broadcast live.
For More Information:
Mehrez, Samia. 2008. Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice. London: Routledge.
Napoli, James J. and Hussein Amin. 1997. Press freedom in Egypt. In Press Freedom and Communication in Africa. Edited by Festus Eribo. African World Press.