A Brief History of Press Freedom in Egypt

As an Egyptian-American daughter of journalists, the Egyptian media over the past few years has fascinated me. Growing up in America, where media bias at least attempts to be subtle, I was shocked at the blatant pro-government stance I saw on TV and in print media while in Egypt. For my own research, I’ll be looking at state-run and independent newspaper coverage of events over the last few years. But to do that, it’s important to understand the history of print media in Egypt.

The development of print press spans a long period of Egyptian history. During the first phase of British control, from 1882 to 1914, the press was used as a mechanism for political participation. The newspaper was “a key organ of political expression and criticism” and “played a critical role in the crystallization of a new Egyptian national identity” as Egyptians struggled to break free of British colonial rule.[1] The 2013 overthrow of Morsi was not Egypt’s first coup. In fact, Egypt’s post-colonial history begins with Nasser’s 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy and expelled the remnants of the British occupation. Sadat succeeded Nasser in 1970, and when he was assassinated, Mubarak was sworn in as president in 1981. Despite the different leadership style of each presidency, they were all characterized by strong media censorship.

Mass Media Under Nasser

When Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew King Farouk’s monarchy, he outlawed censorship but reinstated the law just one month later, warning the media to be “approving of the government’s activities or to be noncommittal.”[2] Censorship greatly increased under Nasser, not only due to his strict rule, but also as a result of some self-censoring journalists who saw themselves as part of Nasser’s cause, and thus voluntarily became his puppets. Those who chose to defy Nasser faced torture in prison, or if they were lucky, were merely silenced. Mustafa Amin, for example, a liberal journalist who favored Western democracy to Nasser’s close ties with the Soviet Union, was accused of being an American spy and imprisoned and tortured. In a BBC interview, Amin describes being attacked by dogs to the point of collapse “seven days a week.” In 1960, Nasser nationalized the press, thereby giving ownership of private press to the National Union, and effectively crushing any semblance of independence in the media.[3]

Mass Media Under Sadat

Sadat’s eleven-year presidency continued the censorship tradition, though with a less heavy hand than Nasser’s. Where Nasser would arrest and detain, Sadat would fire and end careers. In 1973, over one hundred journalists had their professional licenses revoked for six months as a reminder “of their dependence on the regime for their livelihood.”[4] Then in 1979, Sadat passed a “Law of Shame” which prevented the press from publishing antigovernment content, and in 1980, his appointment of members of the Press Syndicate put “the press in the hands of non-journalists and government employees.”[5] Public criticism did exist in Sadat’s Egypt, however. Journalists were able to criticize the economy, traffic, or any other problem so long as government officials were not explicitly named.

Mass Media Under Mubarak

The 1981 assassination of Sadat led to the “election” of Mubarak as president. Mubarak exhibited a markedly more lenient approach to press freedom than Nasser or Sadat, but was extremely repressive nonetheless. Although they needed government approval to function, independent and opposition newspapers emerged during this time.[6] Many newspapers were privatized and the Internet and satellite television offered new platforms for criticism. But despite this growing pluralism in the media scene, “arrests and abuse of journalists—police assaults and raids, detentions, even torture—continued.”[7] In 1995, Mubarak’s Parliament passed Press Law 93, which imposed anything from fines to prison sentences on journalists “’publishing false information with the aim of attacking the economy’ in order to accuse industrialists and politicians;” and another bill passed in 1996 made it possible to charge journalists who criticized Mubarak or his family.[8] Although a diverse media emerged in Mubarak’s era, critics and opponents were too often silenced and repressed, making Mubarak a miniscule improvement from his predecessors.

The Media After the January 2011 Uprising

The 2011 uprising brought about enormous hope and potential for change, both for Egypt as a whole and for the journalism industry. During the mass protests that called for Mubarak’s resignation, social media played a large role in mobilizing the masses and disseminating information in a time where state-run media refused to accurately portray what was happening in the streets. Many Egyptians relied on the Internet and Al Jazeera for accurate information during the protests, which led to the revocation of Al Jazeera’s broadcasting license, the detainment of its bureau chief, and eventually a nearly week long, statewide Internet and phone blackout.[9] Since the reinstatement of the Internet and the fall of Mubarak, many steps were taken to reform the media including the disbandment of the Ministry of Information.

Media Under Morsi

In early October 2012, Morsi pardoned detainees who were arrested for participating in protests since January 2011 and cleared many journalists of their charges. Later in October, however, Morsi’s government came under scrutiny for its reactions to criticism. Bassem Youssef, commonly known as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” famously ridiculed and criticized Morsi on his show El Bernameg. He was arrested and jailed for insulting the president and “showing contempt toward Islam,” but later released on bail and allowed to resume his show.[10] (He’s giving a talk in DC tomorrow!) Following the Mubarak pattern of repressing journalists and critics, “criminals” under Morsi included Alber Saber Ayad, charged with “defamation of religion,” a Shi’a man accused of desecrating a mosque, two Muslim men “charged with defaming Christianity for burning the Bible,” and a Christian man dealt a six-year sentence for posting photos considered offensive to Islam to the Internet.[11] Editors-in-chief of many large state newspapers were replaced and popular news hosts were investigated. Still, Morsi’s presidency saw an opposition media “more vocal and critical than ever.”[12]

Media Today

The past three years of tumult resulted in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, seen in the discourse in journalism and the mass media. Within the subset of an extremely poor education system, journalism in Egypt remains in shambles. Journalists perceive themselves to be “activists instead of watchdogs,” writing biased and often propagandist news articles rather than objective fact-based content.[13] This bias is also due in part to an Egyptian journalistic phenomenon known as al-maktab, “the desk,” whereby the well-educated, “top-dog” journalists write and re-write other journalists’ articles, ultimately leading to uniform narratives in the media.[14]

In a recent study, Egypt was among the top ten jailers of journalists around the world. There is still a ways to go in ensuring press freedom in Egypt, and understanding the implications of this repression is critical to understanding the events and public attitudes that have developed over the past four years.

 


[1] Contemporary Egypt: Through Egyptian Eyes. Essays in Honour of Professor P.J. Vatikiotis by Charles Tripp Review by: Israel Gershoni. (1995). Middle Eastern Studies, 31(1), 174-180.

[2] Zajackowski, D. (1989). A Comparison of Censorship, Control, and Freedom of the Press in Israel and Egypt: An Update From the Journalists’ Perspective.

[3] Elkamel, S. (2013, May 1). Objectivity in the Shadows of Political Turmoil: A Comparative Content Analysis of News Framing in Post-Revolution Egypt’s Press.

[4] Zajackowski, D. (1989).

[5] Alianak, S. (2007). Middle Eastern leaders and Islam: A precarious equilibrium (p. 180). New York: Peter Lang.

[6] ElMasry, M., Basiony, D., & Elkamel, S. (2014). Egyptian Journalistic Professionalism in the Context of Revolution: Comparing Survey Results from Before and After the January 25, 2011 Uprising. International Journal of Communication, 8.

[7] Khamis, S. (2011). The Transformative Egyptian Media Landscape: Changes, Challenges and Comparative Perspectives. International Journal of Communication, 5

[8] Alianak, S. (2007). Middle Eastern leaders and Islam: A precarious equilibrium (p. 180). New York: Peter Lang.

[9] Khamis, S. (2011).

[10]S. Kalin. (2013, April 8). Here are the jokes that got Bassem Youssef, the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” arrested.

[11] AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC STATEMENT Egypt: Broadcaster’s conviction for “insulting the President” another blow to freedom of expression. (2012, October 23).

[12] Proposed Egyptian constitution to ‘limit’ media freedom – International Media Support (IMS). (2012, December 1).

[13] Elmasry, M. (2014, January 29). Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy. Conference at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

[14] Elmasry, M.