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.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
An anti-Morsi protester holds an Egypt flag as she walks in front of riot police in front of the presidential palace in Cairo Tuesday. Egypt fell by six places in Transparency International’s corruption index to 118th place this year.

"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.”

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. 

How free?

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.

Egypt’s uprising was about freedom, dignity, and justice for people who lived under a repressive regime for almost three decades. But journalists and analysts say that now there is potential for greater restrictions on speech than under Mubarak.

“There are places within the constitution that give traction to potentially repressive measures, whether it comes to freedom of expression, the ways sharia is interpreted and implemented,” Mr. Hanna said. “And clearly you also have a monopolization of power … and if you give those tools to a somewhat paranoid president and his coterie, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them used repressively.”

Opposition is well represented in the media, Mr. Hanna said, which means it could become an obvious target for a crackdown.

Sunday broadcast cut off

Perhaps a broadcast from Sunday is evidence of how this could play out: Transmission was reportedly cut off by government censors when Egyptian state television presenter Hala Fahmy held – on-air – a burial shroud to protest the Brotherhood.

The attorney general has also opened an investigation of opposition figures including Amr Moussa, HamdeenSabahi, and Mohamed ElBaradei for inciting the overthrow of the government, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.

In light of a widening political divide, “this starts to become really potentially quite dangerous,” says Hanna. “If we’re seeing political opposition being repressed through trumped-up legal charges and measures, we’re entering a very different stage of conflict.... There are a lot of warning signs right now that indicate, one, that society is dangerously polarized, and that the Muslim Brotherhood in power might try shockingly so to fully repress its opposition,” Hanna said.

The thousands who converged on the presidential palace Tuesday came after weeks of protest against Morsi's decree that gave him sweeping powers that allowed the draft constitution he favors to be approved last Friday.

Guarantees?

Article 45 of the new draft constitution states that “freedom of thought and opinion shall be guaranteed,” and “every individual has the right to express an opinion and to disseminate it verbally, in writing or illustration, or by any other means of publication and expression.”

Two sets of articles, however, are problematic. Article 31 prohibits “insulting or showing contempt” toward any individual, and article 44 bans insulting or abusing religious messengers and prophets. There is no protection against imprisonment for journalists, frequently charged with insulting the judiciary and the president, says Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.

Article 48 in the draft says, on the one hand, that "media shall be free and independent," but on the other that they must act "in accordance with the basic principles of the State" and society, and respect "the requirements of national security."

“If you give the state the right to interfere with private independent media on the basis of whether or not they comply with public morals, or are contributing to enriching or reflecting public opinion,” Ms. Morayef said, “you are opening the door to censorship, arbitrary interference with freedom of the media.”

“And that’s very serious,” she adds.

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