In 2013, Egypt was ranked 158 out of 178 countries in the annual Reporters Without Borders Freedom Index. This troubling ranking is a reflection of the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood both of which have committed acts of violence against journalists since the 2011 revolution. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights reported that 205 violations occurred between July 28th and August 30th 2013. A majority of the attacks were carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates, but the most serious attacks on journalists were carried out by security forces and the military. Journalists enjoyed a modicum more of freedom after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, however that has slowly dissipated. The schism within Egypt’s highly polarized society since the rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi’s administration, has endangered the integrity, freedom, and very lives of journalists within Egypt. Public discourse is extremely important while Egypt is in such a fragile state. If people are not allowed to voice dissenting opinions it will be very difficult for an inclusive and stable government to be formed.
The battle lines are drawn between those who supported Morsi and believed he suffered an illegal coup despite being a democratically elected president, and those who viewed Morsi as an illegitimate president and are pleased the military stepped in to remove him. News outlets are pressured to report with extreme bias, making neutral reporting hard to find. Now that the military is in power, they have moved against news outlets they perceive as critical of the armed forces.
A private conversation between General Sisi and fellow senior generals of the Egyptian armed forces from several months ago was secretly recorded and posted online. The people in the video are discussing how to control media outlets and prevent them from criticizing the military. An officer says: “We must re-establish red lines for the media. We need to find a new way of neutralizing them; the media in Egypt is controlled by 20 or 25 people… We should engage with these people directly and individually either terrorize them or win them over.” General Sisi is heard saying in the video, “It takes a long time before you’re able to affect and control the media. We are working on this and we are achieving more positive results but we have yet to achieve what we want.”
The substance of this conversation can be connected to the harassment of media outlets that covered the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent violent dispersion of pro-Morsi camps. The Qatari news channel Al Jazeera in particular was viewed as being too biased towards the Brotherhood in their coverage by pro-military factions. At the beginning of September, Al Jazeera’s broadcast signals were jammed so that their programming could not be viewed in Egypt. The network claimed that the source of the frequency jamming was emanating from military institutions, implying that the interim government was behind the obstruction. Around the same time, the military raided several of Al Jazeera’s studios and arrested multiple staff members. As a result, Al Jazeera no longer names its correspondents who contribute to news stories in Egypt for their safety. Egypt’s government has officially called Al Jazeera “A national threat”.
Giving Gallows Humor a try:
The censorship that has occurred under the interim government in Egypt has dire implications for the direction of the country. We could see the return of an autocratic Mubarak era government, with extremely limited freedoms and protections for journalists. News stations are not the only way Egyptians consume media. Bassem Youssef hosts a satirical news show called El Bernameg (which means “The Show”). Youssef is often called an Egyptian Jon Stewart because his show is modeled after The Daily Show based in America. He is a heart surgeon turned comedian who satirizes political figures and current events on his show. Youssef has been broadcasting since the beginning of the uprising against Mubarak in 2011. His show is extremely popular, drawing 40 million viewers in more recent broadcasts and its Youtube channel is one of the most popular in the region. El Bernameg was especially vocal in criticizing Mohammed Morsi’s administration, which landed the show in trouble. Youssef was harassed and condemned by officials. Youssef was arrested by the authorities for insulting President Morsi and was embroiled in legal battles. This did little to deter the satirist who promised to continue his television program. Youssef has constantly stated that he spares no one in his political satire and that he will continue to hold those in power accountable, no matter who they are.
His show has been on hiatus for several months and it has been speculated that he will not be able to return and criticize the interim government and the military. There are plans for El Bernameg to resume this week and time will tell if Youssef will challenge military’s crackdown on the media and Muslim Brotherhood. It is unclear how the military will deal with such a popular public figure who has faced persecution for his wit before. Youssef has warned against the nationalist fervor that has swept across the country against the Muslim Brotherhood, saying it could become an Egyptian form of McCarthyism.
If Youssef exposes some of the abuses of the military-backed interim government, he may help steer the new government to more stable waters. The country is highly polarized and not all perspectives are fairly portrayed in Egyptian media today. Due to Youssef’s immense popularity, he may be safe from sanctions or legal action from the overly sensitive government. Comedy could be the light touch the country needs to help diffuse tensions between rival factions and a step towards restoring free speech.