Egypt press crackdown and propaganda

The information wars are heating up in Egypt.

Asmaa Waguih
Ambassador Patterson hasn't been getting warm treatment in the Egyptian press as her tour winds down.

Egypt's military-backed government over the weekend signaled an expanded crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by announcing that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president in June 2012 and deposed this July 3, would be put on trial for inciting violence.

That decision came less than two weeks after President Hosni Mubarak, who headed a military-backed dictatorship for 30 years until February 2011, was released from prison and placed under house arrest while awaiting a trial of his own. Morsi, meanwhile, remains in the secret prison Egypt's military whisked him to shortly after it removed him from office.

Looking a little further, the current regime appears eager to shut down most political avenues and media outlets it can't control. On Sunday, it released and deported three foreigners who were arrested while reporting in Cairo for Al Jazeera English. Last Friday, the offices of Al Jazeera Egypt Live (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) in three Cairo locations were raided and shut, their broadcasting equipment confiscated, for what government-controlled newspaper Al Ahram said was a lack of "professional ethics."  Previously Al Jazeera Arabic's local offices had been shut down, though correspondents continue to file reports from inside the country.

GALLERY: Egypt grapples with uncertain future

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the government is trying to suppress dissent.

"The Egyptian government is widening its censorship campaign against critical media in Egypt to undermine coverage of Muslim Brotherhood protests," Sherif Mansour, the group's regional coordinator, said in a statement. "Like their predecessors, authorities apparently fail to grasp that the attempted suppression of dissenting voices only compounds the dissent."

Al Jazeera Arabic, owned by Qatar's ruling monarchy, which is an enthusiastic backer of the Brotherhood, has had some of the friendliest coverage of the Brotherhood among major television outlets, and Egypt's military and military-friendly news outlets have painted them as a propaganda outlet for the Islamist movement.

The big picture: It appears that a battle has been joined in Egypt, with the military and its appointed civilian leaders seeking to put the genie of greater media freedom back in the bottle. The presence of Al Jazeera and other regional broadcasters in Tahrir Square during the uprising against Mubarak electrified not just the country, encouraging more people to get out of the house and join protests, but the region.

Controlling the flow of pictures and reporting stems the chances of a repeat. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood are no friends of press freedom either. Pro-Morsi protesters attacked reporters from local station ONTV, a staunch supporter of the coup, and broke their equipment on Friday. During Morsi's year in power, defamation suits and suits alleging defamation of religion were used to silence critics.

The increasing flow of disinformation, fabrications, and outright lies on Egyptian media pushed outgoing US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson into a rare, extremely angry statement holding Egypt's interim rulers responsible for a fabricated article in Al Ahram late last month. An article written by the government newspaper's Editor in Chief Abdel Nasser Salama reported that Patterson was part of a conspiracy with Muslim Brotherhood members and foreign militants to destabilize Egypt and divide it into two smaller countries. 

"I am writing to adamantly deny the outrageous, fictitious, and thoroughly unprofessional headline article that appeared in your paper on August 27. Your article’s claim that I personally am involved in a conspiracy to divide and destabilize Egypt is absolutely absurd and dangerous," Patterson wrote to Mr. Salama. "I am particularly disturbed to think that Al Ahram, as the flagship state-run paper in Egypt, is regarded as a representative of the government’s viewpoint. We will, therefore, raise this article at the highest levels of the government to protest its publication and the irresponsible behavior that led to it."

Ahram has long been a tool for state propaganda, and is emerging as an important figure in Egypt's ongoing information wars. Local television is likewise focused on the threats of the Brothers, allegations of ties to foreign plots, and warnings of the need for stability and order.

Plus ça change.

GALLERY: Egypt grapples with uncertain future.

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