The national constitution bans censorship except during a state of emergency, which the country has been under since 1981 and which was renewed in February 2003 for another three years as demonstrations grew against the impending US-British invasion of Iraq. As soon as the invasion began, the government ordered the media to avoid coverage that might inflame an already angry Egyptian public or harm relations with the United States.
One of the strongest reactions to these guidelines came from a group of intellectuals - including some veteran columnists with the state-run daily paper Al-Ahram - who publicly disagreed with President Hosni Mubarak. Many papers took an anti-US line and harshly criticised President George Bush. The national journalists’ union called on the media on 26 October to boycott the US ambassador to Egypt after he accused the local press of biased coverage of Israel.
Journalists were frequent targets when hundreds of anti-war protesters were arrested in the spring, and some of them, including foreigners, were threatened, beaten or arrested too.
Media dissent included criticism by Al-Ahram on 20 July of the ruling National Democratic Party’s monopoly of power which it said had blocked any political reform. A pro-Nasser opposition figure, Jalal Aref, was elected president of the journalists’ union on 30 July, beating the government’s candidate, Salah Muntassar.
But the state of emergency was not the main weapon used to control the media and more traditional and insidious measures were still preferred. The appearance of new publications remained under the control of the National Press Council which was supposed to meet each month to authorise them, but in practice did so only once a year. This meant that only seven officially-licensed independent papers were still appearing. They were also subject to prior censorship by the information ministry, which could seize issues containing articles it did not like.
Government-controlled papers, with bigger circulations, were still edited by pro-government figures appointed by the government’s Advisory Council. Government press groups were the only ones with their own printing operations and virtually all independent papers were dependent on these. The authorities and big companies bought the independent media’s silence by giving them advertising revenue or handing out bribes.
All papers - pro-government, opposition or independent - censored themselves on matters involving the president and his aides, the justice system, the armed forces and religion. Interviews with Israeli officials and citizens were taboo and journalists kept to this unwritten rule partly through fear of being denounced by their colleagues, partly out of fear of the secret police or else because they believed it was right.
A journalist disappears
Rida Hilal, deputy editor of the government daily Al-Ahram and one of the few Egyptian journalists who did not criticise the US-British invasion of Iraq, vanished on 11 August 2003.
Four journalists imprisoned
Abd al-Munim Gamal al-Din Abd al-Munim, of the twice-weekly Islamist paper Al Shaab, the organ of the Labour Party, remained in prison, where he has been since February 1993 under an indefinite detention order. On 30 October that year, after an eight-month trial before a Cairo military court, he and a dozen other defendants were acquitted. Instead of being freed, he was sent to Tora prison, in Cairo, and at the end of 2003 was in Fayum prison, southwest of Cairo.
Mustapha Bakri (editor) and Mahmud Bakri (journalist), of the weekly Al-Usbu, were sent to Tora prison (south of Cairo) on 2 June 2003, a day after the supreme court upheld a one-year sentence imposed in 1998 for libelling Social Justice Party leader Mohammed Abdel Al, editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi, by accusing him of corruption in articles in 1996 in the daily Al-Ahrar, then edited by Mustapha Bakri, without providing evidence.
However, on 25 May 2003, Al was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the state security court for taking bribes from businessmen in exchange for not criticising them in print. On 25 June, the prosecutor suspended the sentences of the two Bakris and released them, since Al was now in prison for the things they had accused him of.
Mahmud Mahran, editor of the weekly Al Nabaa and the daily Akher Khabar, died in prison on 13 July after a long illness. The state security court sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine of 200 Egyptian pounds (40 euros) on 16 September 2001 for "inciting national rebellion," "insulting a religion" and "publishing indecent photographs." He had been in hospital ever since his arrest.
He had been accused of printing articles and photos about the debauchery of a bearded man, supposedly a monk at a monastery in Assyut (central Egypt), with a naked woman, under the headline "A monastery turned into a whorehouse." The articles sparked many demonstrations by Copts in Cairo in June 2001.
A journalist arrested
Hossam el-Hamalawy, a stringer for the US daily The Los Angeles Times, was arrested by five plainclothes police on 22 March 2003 as he left a restaurant in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He told them he was a journalist but they confiscated his press card, mobile phone battery and identity card and took him, with several youths rounded up earlier, to the Gamaleya police station, where they were fingerprinted, photographed and listed as "dangerous criminals."
A few hours later, Hamalawy was taken to state security headquarters where he was blindfolded. An officer who interrogated him said he had not been told he was a journalist and said a mistake had been made. However, the journalist was forced to promise in writing not to take part in "rioting that destroyed public or private property" and then freed. He had been badly beaten by security forces during a demonstration in Cairo on 20 March.
Six journalists physically attacked
A cameraman for the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera was beaten by police on 21 March 2003 during Cairo’s biggest demonstration against the US-British invasion of Iraq as they entered the offices of the lawyers’ union, where a meeting was under way. Al-Jazeera journalist Lena el-Ghadban handed over her bag and camera to avoid being hit also. Other journalists were also set upon during the demonstration.
Four plainclothes police detained Laura-Julie Perrault, of the Canadian daily La Presse, on 4 April because she refused to move on as police dispersed anti-war protesters before a demonstration. Her "fixer," a journalist from the French-language weekly Al-Ahram Hebdo, was threatened with arrest. Half an hour later, as the two women were in a nearby street, one of the policemen emptied the Egyptian journalist’s bag on the ground and confiscated her papers, including her press card.
Philip Ide, of the British weekly The Mail on Sunday, was attacked by more than a dozen plainclothes police the same day after he had interviewed in a Cairo café relatives of an activist who had just been arrested. He was thrown to the ground, roughly held down and his camera seized. He failed to get it back when he later went to a police station in the Khalifa neighbourhood.
Rhoda Metcalfe, a Canadian freelance working for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and Radio Netherlands, was roughly stopped during the 4 April protest by plainclothes police who seized her tape-recorder. Two journalists from Al-Ahram Hebdo were beaten by plainclothes police at the demonstration. When they tried to formally complain at the police station, they were advised not to if they wanted to avoid trouble.
Several other journalists were threatened or attacked during the anti-war protests but many worked for government media and chose not to file complaints.
Harassment and obstruction
The state-run TV station’s news talk-show Rais al-Tahrir (Editor-in-Chief), presented by well-known journalist Hamdi Qandil, was suspended on 20 March 2003, just before the US-British invasion of Iraq began. Qandil had criticised, in its last edition, the neutrality and weakness of Arab regimes during the Iraq crisis. He then decided to take three weeks holiday during the war to avoid any clash with his bosses.
The suspension was deplored by the daily paper Al-Ahram. The government had tolerated the rather outspoken programme for five years, but the anti-US stance of its presenter was finally too much of a threat among the tightly-controlled government media. US-Egyptian strategic interests took precedence over the popularity of the programme, which resumed in August, but on a privately-owned TV station.
A state-run TV journalist was forced to flee to the seventh floor of a building during a police attack on anti-war demonstrators in front of the university in the centre of Cairo on 20 March. His cameraman was injured, probably by a police truncheon, and needed stitches. The camera was damaged.
The weekly Al-Sada, organ of the El-Takaful party, was banned on 2 July after some of its senior staff were summoned by state security officials who complained about its editorial line and demanded the sacking of its new editor, Yasser Barakat. They warned that if this was not done, the party would be "suspended." The paper, founded in February, criticised US dominance in the Middle East, opposed normalising relations with Israel and exposed government corruption.
The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which is distributed throughout the Middle East, was banned from newsstands in August and, for the first time, its subscription customers were cut off.
In 2001, the information ministry had ordered the Al-Ahram distribution firm to stop handling the paper because of its criticism of the government and only its subscribers were allowed to receive it. The paper, which is much more outspoken than the local press, reports on corruption, torture, the regime’s authoritarianism and restrictions on freedom of expression. Editor Abdel Bari Atwan said an article by Mohammed Diab about the succession to President Mubarak and the growing power of his son was the cause of the ban.