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Egypt severly curtails press freedom ahead of elections

After giving journalists wide latitude during the last elections in 2005, Egypt is now squelching press freedom and even requiring a permit to send mass text messages.

By Miret El NaggarMcClatchy Newspapers / October 27, 2010

An activist from the anti-government April 6 Youth Movement, displays placards in his car in Cairo, on Oct. 25, ahead of the November 28 parliamentary elections.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

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Cairo

After a period of relative freedom, journalists in Egypt have become the targets of the harshest government crackdown in years, apparently aimed at silencing critical voices ahead of parliamentary elections next month and a presidential election next year.

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The regime of President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch US ally, has shut down a string of television stations and imposed new regulations on newsgathering and telecommunications.

Critics say the attempt to muzzle opposition groups and reformists is intended to protect the 82-year-old Mubarak from public scrutiny of his 29-year grip on the Arab world's most populous nation.

Many observers said Mubarak's government had learned from the last elections, in 2005, when it allowed journalists wide latitude, and media outlets exposed electoral fraud by airing live footage of security forces beating voters and barring them from reaching ballot boxes.

"It is very alarming for us," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog. "Critical voices are being silenced one after the other."

The clampdown also has highlighted the links between Mubarak's regime and powerful businessmen who run media outlets that are nominally independent yet have silenced journalists who criticize the government.

Earlier this month, the firebrand journalist Ibrahim Eissa was fired from his post as editor in chief of the independent daily Al Dustour by the paper's new owners, one of whom is a business tycoon and a member of the Al Wafd opposition party. Also, a private satellite channel owned by another businessman took a television show that Mr. Eissa hosts off the air.

Eissa – who's written articles critical of Mubarak and his son and heir apparent, Gamal, and has raised the sensitive issue of Mubarak's health – told McClatchy that the government was openly flouting the Obama administration's calls for a fairer election process.

"The regime is interpreting Obama's advice and wishes in its own way," Eissa said. "It will not stop rigging the elections, but it will stop the talk concerning the rigging of the elections."

The defiant editor claimed that his former patrons were currying favor with the authorities, and that his dismissal may have bought the Wafd party more seats in the next parliament.

The moves marked a dramatic setback for journalists, who'd had greater freedom since 2004. Eissa credited former President George W. Bush, who urged Middle East allies to democratize, a form of direct pressure that the Obama administration so far has seemed reluctant to employ.

Egyptian journalists had pounced on the opportunity to criticize the state after years of censorship. Entrepreneurs saw it as a lucrative new market, as the public flocked to dynamic independent publications and satellite evening news programs that became mainstream Egypt's daily news digest.

"Despite all of George Bush's transgressions, his good deed was in calling for political reform in the Middle East," Eissa said.