Thursday, February 6, 2014

State (of) Media and Egyptian Democracy

"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." - Benjamin Franklin

The dominant reporting in Egypt goes something like this: Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected President, and his Muslim Brotherhood are a threat to Egyptian national security. His removal from power by the military, while not unlike a coup, was legitimated by massive anti-government protests and widespread disapproval of Morsi's leadership, both of which threaten Egypt's social fabric. The Egyptian army, backed by popular support, stepped in to secure order and will act as midwife to the ugly, winding road to democracy. Democracy, democracy, democracy!

While it's tempting to take any of these statements at face value, we're talking about a process with many competing interests and variables. Political plurality, free and fair elections, institutions and the rule of law all play a role in the democratic process. But in a country like Egypt with a dark history of martial--not rule of--law, government co-option of political parties, and a strangled press, these pillars of governance increasingly rely on independent assessment to test their efficacy. This role is traditionally shared by rights groups, professional syndicates and especially the media who act as watchdogs to and stakeholders in the political process. During this time of political transition and constitutional referendum in Egypt, neutral analysis of government action is central to the country's democratic potential. However, the current treatment of reporters, and harassment of domestic and foreign media outlets in Egypt (along with exclusion from the political arena and state-run media) throws doubt on the legitimacy of its democratic process.

Egypt's private and state media outlets have enjoyed little freedom in recent decades. Between 1981-2012, Egypt was under a state of emergency, which allowed the government to detain citizens indefinitely and without charge or trial, among other measures. During the Mubarak era the Egyptian government also controlled media licenses, with the President heading the media licensing body. State television and radio broadcasts were (and still are) under the direct control of the Ministry of Information, the Egyptian government's propaganda arm which issues all media licenses. Licenses continue to be denied or revoked if private media firms deviate from official talking points or attempt to seriously challenge the validity of government claims or provide critical analyses. 

The legacy of media censorship and its relationship to the political elite, however, carried over once Hosni Mubarak was ousted in the 2011 revolution. Under transitional military rule immediately following Mubarak's ouster, the SCAF actually expanded the Emergency Law to target journalists and their employers who 'spread false information harmful to national security,' and publicly warned editors and journalists against publishing anything damaging to the military. Although the Emergency Law provision expired in May 2012, the media remained largely uncritical of government actions. Even now with an upcoming constitutional referendum in Egypt, media bias favors the military's insistence that the vote pass despite the fact that Islamists parties--who won the majority in the 2012 elections--are largely excluded from the drafting process. The army even designated the Muslim Brotherhood (and by extension its supporters and sympathizers) as a terrorist organization, affording the SCAF the pretext to suppress and exclude Islamist parties from the political arena despite their popularity. Unsurprisingly, the SCAF's demonization of Islamic parties and the media's tacit--sometimes explicit--endorsement of this has led to massive human rights violations.

During Mohamed Morsi's presidency there too is substantial evidence that those critical of government in the media were targeted. After the film The Innocence of Muslims was released and enraged many Egyptians, Morsi dramatically increased prosecutions of non-Muslim citizens, journalists and media personalities for blasphemy and insulting Islam. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, at least 24 people have been prosecuted for insulting the President, more than under the three previous presidents combined.
(Al Jazeera)
Once in power, former President Morsi also moved to cement the media's pro-goverment bias by appointing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to head the Ministry of Information, which directs all state media coverage. Morsi even moved to investigate various state media employees for deviating too far from the government's message. Outside of the state media, independent voices were silenced, too. Independent media outlets came under financial pressure in late 2012 as advertising subsidies are only given to outlets whose coverage is sympathetic to the government. It was also widely observed that Morsi's government declined to protect journalists from official and vigilante harassment while trying to report on protests.

The current state of the media in the run-up to the constitutional referendum and elections is dismal. Journalists, especially those aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, face arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment. Most recently, 20 journalists from Al Jazeera were arrested for terrorist activities because they sought comments from Muslim Brotherhood members, which is now deemed a crime. It is clear from the country's history and the current suppression of critical media that the Egyptian military (and most likely future leaders) fully intends on leveraging--not dismantling--the state propaganda infrastructure in order to maximize its position in Egypt's political future, all while leaving thousands dead and imprisoned, and many more severely intimidated.

As long as there's political control over media licensing, selective discrimination of journalists and a system of media bias and propaganda, Egypt will never have a free media--or genuine democracy. Without a critical media, we cannot verify elections nor can we assume that the population is politically represented. It would seem that breaking from the twin legacies of silencing dissent and political opposition will never fade unless those in power fully decriminalize the freedom of speech and association. As long as information and political opposition can be controlled and military leaders run for office, those in power will stunt genuine democracy.

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