Un­end­ing Dark­ness

The dark era of jour­nal­is­tic re­pres­sion con­tin­ues as jour­nal­ists in Egypt find them­selves at the re­ceiv­ing end.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Taha Ke­har

Press free­dom in Egypt has be­come a thing of the past.

In 2014, Egypt was ranked as the third dead­li­est coun­try for the me­dia by the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists (CPJ). In re­cent years, Egyptian au­thor­i­ties have de­lib­er­ately tried to muzzle the press through ar­bi­trary re­stric­tions on free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Jour­nal­ists have con­tin­u­ously found them­selves on the re­ceiv­ing end of state re­pres­sion. They have been re­peat­edly in­tim­i­dated and face tremen­dous chal­lenges in re­port­ing about the coun­try.

Egypt ap­pears to be go­ing back to a past that was laid to rest through an 18-day revo­lu­tion or­ches­trated by young ac­tivists in 2011.

In ret­ro­spect, the strug­gle for free­dom and democ­racy seems lit­tle more than a farce. Ac­tivists had the world be­lieve that putting an end to the reign of a dic­ta­tor would au­to­mat­i­cally in­fuse demo­cratic val­ues into the coun­try’s sys­tem of gov­er­nance.

Un­for­tu­nately, me­dia pro­fes­sion­als did not re­al­ize that press free­dom can­not be achieved overnight. On its part, the state needs to un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of me­dia free­dom and in­cor­po­rate it into its list of pri­or­i­ties.

Three years later, the stick­ing points of the Arab Spring have emerged as fresh chal­lenges which are threat­en­ing to dis­tort the progress made so far.

Press free­dom in Egypt has de­te­ri­o­rated sub­stan­tially and be­come a thing of the past. Tele­vi­sion chan­nels have been closed down and many jour­nal­ists have been ar­rested and killed. Sev­eral me­dia pro­fes­sion­als have been booked for slan­der and col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Mus­lim Brotherhood, a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The state’s at­tempts to in­tim­i­date the press have raised ques­tions of pro­por­tion­al­ity. For in­stance, the level of in­volve­ment shown by the me­dia in this re­gard ap­pears to be of a par­tic­u­larly mild na­ture. As a re­sult, stay­ing abreast with the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Mus­lim Brotherhood has been mis­con­strued as an at­tempt to col­lab­o­rate with them.

The in­for­mal sanc­tions im­posed on press free­dom re­flect the state’s mount­ing in­se­cu­ri­ties about re­tain­ing po­lit­i­cal author­ity. The cur­rent regime has la­beled the Mus­lim Brotherhood as a mil­i­tant out­fit. How­ever, the or­ga­ni­za­tion once ruled the coun­try and could po­ten­tially cre­ate com­pe­ti­tion for the in­cum­bent gov­ern­ment.

Although the at­tempts made to curb me­dia free­dom in Egypt are, at best, a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated move, they need to be tack­led in a holis­tic man­ner. The gov­ern­ment must adopt a se­ri­ous stance in ad­dress­ing th­ese griev­ances. How­ever, this ap­pears to be a long shot, es­pe­cially in light of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sce­nario.

From the mo­ment Ab­del Fat­tah alSisi was sworn-in as Egypt’s pres­i­dent, me­dia pro­fes­sion­als have con­stantly come un­der fire.

In 2011, Mo­hamed Badr, an AlJazeera pro­fes­sional, coura­geously re­ported on the peo­ple’s reawak­en­ing in Egypt and Libya. He was taken into cus­tody and in­car­cer­ated for over 200 days with­out any for­mal charge. Although Badr was re­leased, he was termed a traitor for work­ing for a me­dia group which is not viewed in a fa­vor­able light by the regime.

Sim­i­larly, other cor­re­spon­dents have paid a heavy price for their af­fil­i­a­tion with Al-Jazeera. Their na­tion­al­ity is im­ma­te­rial to the state. The state’s re­pres­sive poli­cies have led to strict ac­tion against an Aus­tralian cor­re­spon­dent of AJ, Peter Greste.

A large num­ber of me­dia pro­fes­sion­als have been im­pli­cated on the ba­sis of ab­surd ev­i­dence by pros­e­cu­tors who are per­pet­u­at­ing the state’s author­ity.

At this crit­i­cal junc­ture, his­tory is the only means whereby this prac­tice can be un­der­stood and chal­lenged. Over the years, Arab regimes have done their best to es­tab­lish their mo­nop­oly on the me­dia.

Egypt’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship is

fol­low­ing a sim­i­lar tac­tic to en­sure that the me­dia does not re­al­ize its sig­nif­i­cance as the fourth pil­lar of the state. Con­se­quently, the press has been em­broiled in a sense­less blame game. The state has tai­lored this nar­ra­tive to suit its own pur­poses. When the need arises, it blames the me­dia for or­ches­trat­ing a con­spir­acy and en­gag­ing in un­eth­i­cal prac­tices.

Apart from the anti-state sen­ti­ments that loom large, there are count­less mis­per­cep­tions about Al-Jazeera. Many lead­ers have ac­cused the me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion of al­legedly serv­ing the in­ter­ests of the Zion­ists. Although th­ese al­le­ga­tions have never been ver­i­fied, doubts and sus­pi­cion have ex­isted for a long time.

How­ever, there is a sil­ver lining to this is­sue. In the past, the at­tempts by Arab coun­tries to muzzle the press with sense­less re­stric­tions have failed and the mis­cre­ants have paid a price for such in­tru­sive prac­tices. Rev­o­lu­tions have emerged as a means for chal­leng­ing the state’s dog­matic ef­forts to cen­sor and dic­tate.

What is more, the dig­i­tal age has given a new lease on life to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit. The in­ter­net, so­cial net­work­ing sites and the rapid devel­op­ment of news has pre­vented the state from defin­ing lim­its and bound­aries.

It is equally in­ter­est­ing to note that regimes which ve­he­mently tar­geted the free­dom of ex­pres­sion could not de­fend them­selves against mass re­volts as ef­fec­tively as they should have. Tu­nisia was the first coun­try to en­counter street vi­o­lence af­ter the state stopped Al-Jazeera from car­ry­ing out its op­er­a­tions.

Egypt func­tions in a sim­i­lar man­ner. The Arab Spring may have pro­duced mixed re­sults, but it has raised aware­ness among the peo­ple that they are be­ing short-changed by a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

As a re­sult, they are un­likely to be­lieve news­pa­pers and tele­vi­sion chan­nels which sup­port the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship when they laud the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to bring a pos­i­tive change. More of­ten than not, such me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions have a ten­dency to fab­ri­cate facts and in­sti­gate pro­test­ers. Since me­dia lit­er­acy has im­proved in Egypt, the new gen­er­a­tion is likely to sep­a­rate the grain from the chaff and make in­formed de­ci­sions.

De­spite the wave of op­ti­mism, the state needs to find an im­me­di­ate so­lu­tion to the re­stric­tions im­posed on me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions in Egypt. An­a­lysts be­lieve that a re­lapse into the cir­cum­stances which trig­gered the Arab Spring is just a short-term hic­cup. How­ever, if the state con­tin­ues to act this way, the road to democ­racy and free­dom will con­tinue to be blocked by end­less re­stric­tions and re­pres­sive prac­tices.

In the past, the at­tempts by Arab coun­tries to muzzle the press with sense­less re­stric­tions have failed and the mis­cre­ants have paid a price for such in­tru­sive prac­tices.

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