Under the Weight of Censorship
Egypt’s press freedom is under attack
“When are they going to fire you?” Hani Shukrallah was asked by his brother, echoing what much of his readership must have been thinking. Shukrallah, the then editor of Egypt’s largest English-language news website, Ahram Online, had his answer by the start of the new year.
Shukrallah bid farewell to Ahram Online in January this year after allegedly being shown the door by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. The former editor announced on Facebook that “the deed is done: the MB has now fulfilled its resolve to drive me out of Ahram,” adding that he was leaving with his dignity and self-respect intact.
Shukrallah, one of Egypt’s most respected journalists, has always been a vociferous critic—of Mubarak, of the Islamists, and now of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Shukrallah also has a long history working with Al-Ahram, Egypt’s behemoth state-run publishing house. He served as managing editor, and then editor-in-chief, of the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly from 1991 to 2005, before becoming editor-in-chief of Ahram Online in January 2010. He was a self-proclaimed critic of, in his own words, “everything existing ,” which served as the basis of his success, but also ultimately cost him his job. In October last year, Shukrallah wrote in the Opinion column for Ahram Online : “I’ve criticized the Mubarak regime, and its opposition. Again, the left no less than the right, the Islamist camp no less than the non-Islamists.”
It is interesting that Shukrallah and his sharp pen prospered even under Mubarak’s despotism, while it is the novice FJP government that has proved to be his undoing. This development does not bode well for the future of media freedom in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Egypt’s Information Ministry, presently led by senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Salah Abdul-Maqsoud, is no less partisan than it was in the Mubarak era. Speaking just days before the announcement of Shukrallah’s forced retirement, the Egyptian Information Minister asserted that Egypt’s media “must support the government against rioters who vandalize properties”—‘rioters’ being official speak for anti-Mursi protesters.
In an earlier interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdul-Maqsoud acknowledged that he was at the “heart” of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, while at the same time asserting his commitment to the principles of “professionalism, impartiality, and objectivity, as well as opinion and counter-opinion.” These words ring hollow in light of recent events.
In an article for Foreign Policy, Shukrallah himself claimed that “Egypt’s new rulers moved to tighten their grip over state media, just as the Mubarak clique had before them.” He added, “Speaking in the name of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood kept in place each and every authoritarian institutional, legal, and extra-legal instrument developed by Mubarak to control the media, subvert its independence and muzzle free speech.”
Following his exit from Al-Ahram, the veteran Egyptian journalist has not allowed himself to be silenced, taking to social media to launch his denunciations. Tweeting in both Arabic and English, he has poured scorn on the ruling Brotherhood. In Arabic, he opined that “the Brotherhood’s strategy is clear: ignore the street and opposition, empty calls for dialogue, and feverish preparations for the elections.” To his English-speaking audience, he has urged his followers not to “fall into the trap of underestimating the Brotherhood,” calling on them to “look for the method behind the bungling ineptitude and stupidity.”
It is not all doom and gloom. The Egyptian state may still retain an unduly strong grip on the media, but thanks to the Internet and social media, there is still room for free thought and opinion. So long as Egyptian writers, political activists, bloggers and ordinary citizens can express themselves—and their displeasure—online, the opposition can never be silenced.
After all, the Egyptian people were able to oust Mubarak while his repressive regime remained in firm control of the media. Founding Father James Madison, himself no stranger to revolution, stressed that “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” With Egypt’s parliamentary elections fast approaching, the media—including social media—remains a key battleground. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies may have struck an early blow, but the war is far from over.