Several senior state officials called for greater restrictions on Egypt’s media after the coordinated bombings on Palm Sunday that targeted the churches of St. George in Tanta and St. Mark in Alexandria, killing 45 people and injuring more than 120 others.
While some analysts believe President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s declaration of a three-month state of emergency will not make Egypt’s dismal press freedoms worse, others warn that a larger crisis is looming for the country’s media outlets.
As has transpired after other catastrophes and terrorist operations in the past, Sisi harshly criticized Egypt’s media for their coverage of the Palm Sunday church bombings. Addressing the nation in a televised speech on Sunday night, he demanded that media outlets handle their reporting of the bombings “with credibility, responsibility, and consciousness, so as not to hurt the populace.”
“It is not reasonable to see this incident being replayed on all our channels throughout the day, and you [media personnel] forget this hurts Egyptians,” Sisi said. The incident transpired and we screened it, but it is constantly being replayed.” He urged journalists, “take care of your country,” and “take care of the Egyptian people.”
The privately-owned satellite channel CBC EXtra News stopped broadcasting footage from the two targeted churches shortly before Sisi’s address on Sunday night. The channel claimed that its decision to do so was based on its consideration for viewers’ feelings. This decision to halt broadcasting images was subsequently confirmed by news anchor Asmaa Mostafa on Monday morning, who announced that the channel’s new policies were made independently of the president’s statements, but that they are in agreement with him.
The new emergency law governing the state-of-emergency Sisi put in place after the church bombings, in particular its third article, gives the president power to “monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression, by written or oral decree,” and to order the seizure, confiscation and closure of publications and print houses.
This would seem to contradict Article 71 of the Constitution, despite there being a caveat waving its stipulations in “times of war or public mobilization.” It prohibits the censorship of Egyptian press and media, and the confiscation, suspension or closure of any media outlet, mandating that no custodial sentences may be imposed for crimes of publication.
An hour after Sisi announced his intention to declare a state of emergency on Sunday night, the privately owned Al-Bawaba newspaper published a statement asserting that Egypt’s authorities had confiscated the Monday issue of the newspaper. While the state of emergency had not been officially declared, it seems the rollout of media censorship was already in effect, to be followed by measures to cement its legality. The Sunday evening statement flags a point of dissent from Al-Bawaba Chief Editor Abdel Rehim Ali, who has been a staunch supporter of Sisi and his fight against terrorism. But the newspaper’s coverage of the church bombings may have struck a tone that the state did find amenable, as Al-Bawaba accused the Interior Ministry of failure to protect churches, suggesting Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar be held accountable for these failures and calling on Sisi to change his counterterrorism strategies.
“We have never given up on our national responsibility to preserve the safety and security of our country. It is from this point of view that we adopted our position on what happened today at the St. George and St. Mark churches in Tanta and Alexandria,” the newspaper asserted in the Sunday statement.
The Monday confiscation was followed by a second on Tuesday, with Al-Bawaba planning to publish a large photo of the interior minister on its front page, along with the same accusations of negligence the newspaper leveled against him on Monday. Beside the photo spread, Ali authored an editorial titled “An open letter to the president” in which he reaffirmed his allegiance to the positions the Egyptian government has taken and defended his critique of security failures.
Many parliamentarians urged greater restrictions on media when they convened on Monday to discuss amendments to the Criminal Procedures Code in a bid to expedite the trial of suspected terrorists. Head of the Free Egyptians Party parliamentary bloc, Alaa Abed, accused Egyptian media of being complicit in the bombings due to a failure to educate young people who are being recruited by extremists, arguing that media outlets must be part of the war on terrorism.
Speaker of the house Ali Abdel Aal agreed that the media must be “cleansed.” He clarified that this would also include social media sites, in statements to the privately-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. “The law regulates Twitter and YouTube, and any misuse of these websites will result in users being held accountable under the law,” he said, adding that they are monitored by other states in Europe and are known methods of communication for terrorists.
The Journalists Syndicate condemned state censorship and the confiscation of newspapers in its board meeting on Monday. “The syndicate board completely understands the exceptional circumstances facing Egypt and stresses the role journalism can play in confronting terrorist and extremist acts … the board objects to the confiscation of newspapers, and insists that interaction with state institutions should fall within the framework of a commitment to the Constitution and the law.”
Still, the government pushed ahead with its efforts to adjust the media’s performance, with three presidential decrees being issued on Tuesday that include appointing the boards of national media and journalism authorities. These include: the Supreme Media Regulatory Council, headed by a former president of the Journalists Syndicate, Makram Mohamed Ahmed — who is renowned for his support of the government; the National Press Authority, presided over by Karam Gabr — the former chairman of the state-owned Rosa Al-Youssef Publishing Company, and the National Broadcasting Authority, headed by Hassan Zein — a leading official in Egypt’s state-owned TV networks.
A number of members of these bodies spoke to the privately-owned Extra News on Monday about their belief in the need to “correct” the path of media discourse in Egypt. “When the formation of these bodies is complete, we will be assured that the media has finally woken up and regained its message,” said Hamdy al-Konaisy, a board member of the National Broadcasting Authority.
“Media discourse needs to be rectified,” argued Nadia Mabrouk, a board member of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council. The media must act with “awareness and understanding” in order to “correct its trajectory,” Mabrouk added.
The reconfiguring of media in this way reflects the state’s desire to have the sector led by a generation of journalists from the 1980s and 90s, Mostafa Shawky, researcher of press freedoms at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), asserts. This will not help the state control media, he says, as the impact of traditional media is already declining and the economic crisis the country is experiencing is pushing print newspapers out of circulation. He suggests this will merely result in the rise of more independent media in Egypt.
He added that announcing a state of emergency is an attempt to legitimize violations of press freedoms, and indicates things will get worse in the coming period. These violations existed previously, but now they will have a legal basis, he adds. “What is worrying is the extent of these violations, and the inclusion of digital media and social media networks.”
This criticism of media implies the state is looking for a scapegoat for its failure to contain terrorism, member of the Journalists Syndicate Abdel Hafeez says. “As if the media is responsible for the bombings, the deterioration of the economy, education, and health systems, as well as the protection of churches,” he adds, asserting that government officials do not understand the role of the media, which he stresses is to report and not whitewash events.