This event is co-sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Thursday, November 6, 2014
12:00 pm – 2:00 pm
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Floor 2
1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW,
Washington, DC 20036
Since the Egyptian military took power in July 2013, Egypt has become one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. At least six journalists have been killed and dozens of others have been detained, including three affiliated with Al Jazeera, despite a continued international campaign for their release.
In his September speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his “new Egypt” would “guarantee freedom of speech.” Although there have been other similar promises made to protect the basic rights of Egyptian citizens, unprecedented arbitrary detentions of activists and journalists—and an expanding crackdown on civil society organizations—permeate the country. As Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections later in the year, many of its citizens remain uncertain about their country’s future as they face an increasingly repressive environment.
What threats currently exist for the press and civil society in Egypt? To what extent can the U.S. push back on the Egyptian government’s abuses against its citizens’ basic freedoms? And what should be the priority issues that could help facilitate a free and open press and allow necessary debate ahead of the elections?
Please join POMED and CPJ for a screening of the short documentary “Under Threat,” a joint production of CPJ and Egyptian See Media Productions. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the following guests:
Senior Associate, Middle East Program
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
MENA Program Coordinator,
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
After the screening of “Under Threat,” Stephen McInerney introduced the panelists and presented opening remarks on the state of journalism and press freedom in recent years. He highlighted a trend of instability for space in Egypt reserved for free expression over the past decades. But since the uprisings in 2011 that led to the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, journalists and media figures in Egypt have come under intense scrutiny in a number of ways. As the space for freedom of expression wanes, the panel will discuss the threats that to open press and civil society in Egypt, the contradiction between President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s promises of a “new Egypt” and guarantees of free speech and the recent crackdowns on the press, and the actions the United States can pressure the Egyptian government to open more space for free association and discussion.
Muhammed Mansour discussed his own background and experiences as a journalist in Egypt. He provided a background from his perspective of the events leading to the current state of press affairs. In 2002 it was completely taboo to speak against the Mubarak regime. The situation in Egypt now has regressed back to the way it was under Mubarak nearly 15 years ago. In his own work, Mansour focused on human rights issues, and by the 2011 revolution, journalistic circles were experiencing a kind of euphoria from the space the uprisings provided them to express themselves freely. However, these advances were quickly reversed, either in name or in practice. SCAF, the ruling military council after the ouster of Mubarak, oversaw a culture that was suspicious of journalists. The Egyptian population began to see journalists as spies or agitators, and the military viewed critical publications as acts of chaos. In this way, journalists adopted the practice of self-censorship to protect themselves. Further, under Morsi’s rule, critical press flourished, but after the military coup that ousted him and eventually led to the Sisi presidency, the media has been restrained by both a self-imposed censorship in support of the military, and government policies enacted by the military regime that seek to root out all challenges to their narrative of Egypt.
Sherif Mansour followed Muhammad’s remarks with an account of Egypt’s current state of press freedom. Egypt’s recent crackdown on, harassment, and detention of journalists critical of the regime is set today against the backdrop of upcoming elections. Mansour recounted that in every election, and with every new president, there are promises that the government will stop interfering in media and that it will make the privatization of the media a priority. Yet, in reality, the result has been the opposite. Each new president who assumes office appoints bureaucrats and ministers to oversee media activities and installs allies in state-run media outlets. Even if the private media sphere is not legally restrained, it is marginalized by the state-run media’s access to a near-unlimited budget. Despite promises of fewer police powers to arrest, detain, or search journalists, the repeal of such laws in practice translates into journalists being arrested or detained under different charges, such as trespassing or protesting. Unfortunately, Mansour added, the lack of journalistic freedoms is particularly prominent in election periods when voters need information to decide between what often looks like a very polarized spectrum of possible decisions. To the ruling regime, critical journalists represent a challenge to the narrative that Egypt’s only choice is between military rule and Islamist terrorists.
Michele Dunne provided the panel with a series of policy implications and recommendations. After the removal of Morsi, she said, the only media operating were voicing pro-military perspectives. Although there have been efforts to activate journalistic voices, the government is also making concerted efforts to control the narrative of what is happening in the country and how it got there, both for domestic and foreign audiences. The Sinai, a particularly volatile region in Egypt where a terrorist attack recently claimed the lives of 31 people, used to be a site of particular interest to journalists. However, the Sinai is now “a black hole.” The Egyptian government is either driving away or jailing dissident voices with detentions, torture, or harassment. The important question for policymakers is, “What are the consequences of this?” Dunne argued that not only is the closing of media space toxic to U.S.-Egypt relations, as conspiracy and anti-American stories surface time and again, but the grand narrative of an Egypt engaged in an existential struggle against terrorists is beginning to solidify in the minds of everyday Egyptians. The aforementioned terrorist attack that killed 31 people shook up the media status quo, as the government silenced even the discussion or reporting of the story by some of its greatest supporters. The United States needs to understand that it cannot be silent while the ruling regime allows the demonization of America and flaunts its ability to threaten and drive away American civil society workers and foreign journalists. Journalists not only provide Egypt with important news, but their work informs the policymakers who directly engage Egypt on a regular basis.