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Egypt - World Report 2009

146 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index

-  Area: 1,001,450 sq. km.
-  Population: 78,887,007
-  Language: Arabic
-  Head of state: Hosni Mubarak, since 1981

Since taking power in 1981, Hosni Mubarak has gone all out to curb not just press freedom but also citizens’ rights to freedom of information.

Starting a newspaper requires the backing of the High Council for the Press, headed by the president, the council of minister and the different branches of the security services. Law number 40 passed in 1977 gives each political party the right to have its own newspaper. However, the authorities can arbitrarily close the newspaper and the party if it publishes articles that “threaten national security”. In addition, the Egyptian government which owns 99% of newsagents also keeps a grip on printing, allowing it to censor a newspaper at any time.

However, despite a state of emergency and draconian laws, Egyptian journalists do their utmost to roll back the limits imposed on them. Privately-owned opposition newspapers and the independent press compete for readers’ attention at newsstands with the official government press. Despite the legal, administrative and financial pressures they hold their own.

But outspokenness is not without risk, with 32 articles penalising the press, scattered throughout criminal law, in the law on the press, law on publications, the law relating to state documents (banning access to some official information), on the civil services, political parties and so on.

In the face of such restrictions, the Internet has become a refuge for freedom of expression. With 20% of the population going online, Egypt has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration on the African continent. Out of concern for its image abroad, Egypt decided long ago not to block websites. But it has started to tighten is grip again as the online craze has grown. Since 2008, it has changed the conditions for using wireless (Wi-Fi) Internet, with users having to pay for their connection but also having to supply an email address to which the password and username are sent. Parliament is also now debating a draft law that would provide for prison sentences for “abusing Internet use” and for “publication of multimedia content without government permission”.

Many bloggers were arrested as a result of the “6 April” protest movement launched on Facebook in 2008. The year was marked by hounding of the press and Internet users as the government sought to keep control over the country’s image. Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), said 2008 was “the worst year for threats to free expression since 1952”, the year of the declaration of the Republic in Egypt. Since January 2009, complaints have been brought against journalists and bloggers at the average rate of one a day.

Elsewhere, the Egyptian government launched a campaign against independent television at the start of 2008. In February, Cairo was behind the adoption by Arab League countries of a joint charter restricting broadcast freedom on satellite channels and laying down sanctions for offending content. Several production companies, working with foreign satellite TV stations, have been censored since the start of the year.

The signing of this charter, condemned by journalists, was hailed by the director general of Nilesat SA, satellite operator owned by the Egyptian government, which backs the setting up of a regional regulatory body responsible for granting licences. Until now, television channels wanting to broadcast on Nilesat had to get Cairo’s approval and anti-establishment channels were not welcome. Unlike Qatar which allows al-Jazeera considerable freedom in covering regional news, Egypt continues to carefully monitor the editorial line of televisions using its satellite. Nilesat removed privately-owned al-Hiwar television from its satellite package on 1st April 2008 without giving any explanation.

The Cairo News Company (CNC), the main broadcast equipment supplier to foreign media in Egypt, had its property seized by security forces on 14 April 2008 after one of its biggest customers, al-Jazeera, broadcast footage of the 6 April 2008 demonstrations. CNC’s director, Nader Gohar, was facing proceedings for “setting up a communications network without permission” and “broadcasting without a licence” but an appeal court judge ruled on 19 April 2009 that charges should be dropped against the company and its director.

The draft broadcast law proposed by the government in June 2008 has been going through parliament since November 2008. This law is a threat to journalists in this sector, introducing new penalties of prison sentences ranging from one month to three years, threatening journalists’ freedom of speech, exposing them to charges of “damage to social harmony, national unity, public order and the values of society”. This new law, which is mostly written in vague terms, also proposes the creation of a body, the National Agency for Broadcast Regulation, which would have the power to arbitrarily withdraw a media’s licence. It would be run by representatives from the information ministry and members of state security services.

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