Egypt freedoms in balance during constitutional showdown
Egyptian protesters swamped the presidential palace in Cairo today, angry at a draft constitution favored by President Morsi that many fear will limit freedoms.
"You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity.”Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Egypt struggles for democracy
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That was the statement on one Egyptian newspaper’s website today as it participated with about a dozen other outlets in a news blackout to protest a new draft constitution championed by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. A few hours later, Egypt's constitutional showdown reached an unprecedented peak, with tens of thousands of protesters marching on the presidential palace in Cairo, forcing President Morsi to flee in a motorcade that slipped out a back entrance.
“We haven’t seen anything like it before,” says Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York.
The dramatic turn of events in Cairo is ultimately about freedom – or the lack of it – in the new Egypt. Under Hosni Mubarak, media censorship was the rule, and critics of his regime frequently faced jail time and abuse. That was supposed to be over when Mr. Mubarak fell in February 2011. But the crowds are back out on the streets now in fear that Morsi will simply end up putting an Islamist beard on the old Mubarak governing style. Now, much of the media is joining them in fighting to preserve the gains of the Egyptian uprising, alarmed by a constitutional draft that doesn't protect freedom of the press.
TV news stations prepared to go off-air on Wednesday, even as probably the biggest crisis, and news story, of post-Mubarak Egypt engulfed the capital.
Lina Attalah, chief editor of Egypt Independent, says attempts to stifle criticism of Egypt's new leader have already begun. “Intimidation [is] happening already on the ground against journalists, manifested in summoning of journalists by the public prosecutor on allegations of insulting the president, which has been the case with several journalists so far."
As for the constitution? “We see a lot of limitations and potential limitations to media freedoms if the constitution is passed, and our strike is a response to those things,” Ms. Attalah says.
The Egyptian press has been visibly bolder since the ouster of Mubarak. Egypt ranked fourth for press freedoms in the Middle East and North Africa in a 2012 report by Freedom House, an independent organization based in the US. That is up from sixth regionally in 2011.
Ms. Attalah says even state-owned media, long a propaganda tool, had grown feistier. With independent press, “there is a way higher ceiling of liberties, but also a legacy of censorship that is a by-product of state-sponsored limitation to the media, and this is what you call a form of informal censorship,” she says. Even if the state does not directly own a channel or a newspaper, it can impose control.