- Title: EGYPT: Journalists say media crackdown is aimed at upcoming elections
- Date: 1st November 2010
- Summary: (SOUNDBITE) (English) OWNER OF VIDEO CAIRO SUPPORT SERVICES, MOHAMED GOHAR, SAYING: "I'm quite sure that what the Egyptian government has done was needed and it was the right step. But would the Egyptian government try to use that against cracking down a little bit more on the freedom of expression or the free international media coverage of the coming election campaign. Thisâ€¦ I am not sure." SATELLITE DISHES ON VIDEO CAIRO SUPPORT SERVICES BALCONY
- Embargoed: 16th November 2010 12:00
- Location: Egypt
- Country: Egypt
- Topics: Communications,International Relations
- Reuters ID: LVA54RD80A8O1E0Z930UGGH497W4
- Story Text: Egyptian journalists express fears about new restrictions on the media that they say are likely intended to restrict coverage of upcoming elections.
With key parliamentary elections on the horizon in Egypt, journalists in the country say that a government crackdown on the press has sent a chill through the independent media.
Egyptians go to the polls on November 28th in the country's first parliamentary elections since 2005, and a number of recent restrictions on broadcasters, as well as the firing of a well known newspaper editor who was a government critic, has led observers to accuse the government of trying to stifle dissent in advance of the vote.
Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is expected to easily win the ballot, which is a prelude to presidential elections in late 2011.
In past elections there have been widespread accusations of fraud against the authorities.
Earlier this month, satellite broadcast firms said that Egypt's telecoms regulator had stopped them offering live feeds to private TV channels.
Also, ten days ago the government temporarily shut down 16 satellite television channels for reasons ranging from insulting religions to broadcasting pornography, although an analyst said the real target seemed to be the strict Islamic bent of some of the channels and fears that they might spur support for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in the polls.
Moataz El-Demerdash, the host of the popular talk show "90 Minutes" on the privately owned Mehwar station, has taken advantage of a degree of press freedom in recent years to tackle some of the country's most controversial political and social issues in his show.
He says that new regulations on broadcasters are necessary to raise loose journalistic standards but that the timing is unfortunate.
"The government is right, it's just that they picked the wrong time. And let's not forget that the government allowed those unprofessional people to go on air and to have TV shows in the first place - that was a few years back. So my question to the government is, Why didn't you regulate the media when you started off with giving licenses to unprofessional people? Why now? That is the question," he said.
El-Demerdash has come to the same conclusion as many observers of the Egyptian political scene about the reasons for the new restrictions.
"There is a very important elections coming up very soon and I think that it doesn't take a genius to realize that this is done in this particular time to try and lessen the wave of criticism to the government and the party for political reasons," he added.
Egypt's upcoming elections are being closely watched to see how much space the authorities give opposition groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood which controls a fifth of seats in the existing parliament.
Longtime president Hosni Mubarak has not said if he will run in the subsequent presidential elections, but if he doesn't many expect that the ruling party will nominate his son Gamal for the post.
With President Mubarak ageing and a possible transition in the offing, analysts say that a relative leniency towards the opposition and the press may be coming to a close.
Before 2004, Egypt's TV and press were limited to government-controlled programs. Since then, privately owned press and media have sprung up, stimulating more criticism of state policy.
At a recent meeting at the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, there was agreement that this brief grace period is now over.
One of the owners of Al-Nas, one of the religious stations recently shut down, said that the space for dissent was closing.
"Egypt had reached a level of freedom, and we here in Egypt were proud of the height of level that this freedom have reached. It is clear that there are certain authorities or people who have found that this blessing that they had given to the Egyptian people - which is called freedom - became unnecessarily high, and the ceiling became very high so now it has to be lowered," said Sheikh Safwat Higazi.
Perhaps most controversial was the recent firing of Ibrahim Eissa, a fiery secular critic of the government, who was removed from his post at al-Dustour newspaper in early October when it came under new ownership.
Eissa, said he was sacked for insisting on publishing several articles by opposition figures, though the new owner of the paper, a businessman who heads the opposition Wafd party, said he was sacked for budgetary reasons.
But Eissa insists that al-Badawi came under pressure from the security services, and he says that there will be no free press as long as businessmen with ties to the government own the independent media.
"Al-Dustour's crisis and the shutting down of many other satellite channels brings into focus extremely important point regarding the affiliation of the mass media in Egypt, whether newspapers or satellite channels, which are owned by businessmen who are connected with the government, whether this connection is economic or political. This means that many channels' assets are owned and controlled by businessmen who are affiliated to the government. So when the government tells them [the businessmen] to allow for freedom on their channels, or to increase restrictions on such channels, they do so. Therefore this is not genuine freedom," he said.
Eissa, who is known for his scathing critiques of the government and hardline Islamists, was accused of harming the country's economy and sentenced to two months jail in 2008 after writing about President Hosni Mubarak's health. Mubarak later pardoned him.
Eissa says that in his opinion all of the traditional media outlets except for the new media have been co-opted.
"We have entered a new phase; in this phase there will be no traditional forms of media which will be able to raise the flag of freedom or the message of freedom in Egypt. Those who will raise such flags of freedom, and messages of freedom, search for truth, unveil corruption and face tyranny are the non-traditional forms of media, such as internet sites, personal blogs, facebook-as a personal site where thousands of people meet, and sms messaging. These are the new arenas for freedom in Egypt," he added.
Also on the wrong end of the government crackdown are satellite broadcast firms.
It is unclear to what extent the services that they will be restricted, but for the time being they are being asked to renew their licenses.
State media said that the permits had not been canceled but that they would have to apply for renewal.
According to some reports firms that offer SNG (satellite dish) services would now have to more closely coordinate with state television.
Mohamed Gohar, the owner of Video Cairo Support Services, which offers broadcast facilities to mainly foreign news channels, says it remains to be seen whether new restrictions will impact the coming elections.
"I'm quite sure that what the Egyptian government has done was needed and it was the right step. But would the Egyptian government try to use that against cracking down a little bit more on the freedom of expression or the free international media coverage of the coming election campaign. Thisâ€¦ I am not sure," he said.
Video Cairo Support Services is a contracted partner of ThomsonReuters.
While the Egyptian authorities say that the new regulations on the media are simply an attempt to up journalistic standards, there are real fears among in the independent media that the country's experiment with a free press, albeit brief and closely constrained, may be coming to a close.
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