The room in the Journalist Union in the heart of downtown Cairo smells of old cigarette smoke. Soda bottles and plastic cups litter the floor. Men cluster in a circle of pleather loveseats; some tap laptop keyboards, others read. It is Day 20 of the independent Al Dustour newspaper staff’s sit-in and everyone in the room looks worn out.
Mohammad Abu Al Dahb, a 26-year-old correspondent, hasn’t slept at home since the staff began protesting the sacking of their dissident editor-in-chief. “It’s physically exhausting, of course, but psychologically, every day we feel better about it. We feel stronger about it, because we’re in a battle,” Abu Al Dahab tells me.
His battle counts just one front in a broader war between the Egyptian regime and the country’s independent media. The removal of prominent editor Ibrahim Eissa was the first in a series of seemingly censorious measures that befell the country’s media in advance of parliamentary elections at the end of November.
“This is distinctly a media crackdown. I don’t think we’ve ever seen all of these different things happening all at once and it suggests that now there’s a really concerted, systematic effort to silence opposition voices in the press,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. “It seems like it’s like a perfect storm of very frightening negative signs. Who knows, it might just keep getting worse.”
The Egyptian regime has closed satellite TV stations under the pretext that they were either broadcasting incendiary programs, fueling sectarian tensions, or advertising hazardous medication. A dozen stations have been closed since, while others have received warnings.
All of this was followed by a decree from the Egyptian Telecommunications Ministry restricting the use of mass text messages, a medium used in the past by the opposition to mobilize for demonstrations and transmit news. At the same time, the government revoked the licenses of the private production companies offering live broadcast services to television stations. They were notified that they would now have to navigate the cumbersome and quite possibly unending process of re-applying for the very same licenses, a prospect that has elicited widespread and justifiable fears that the regime intends to block live coverage of balloting.
In 2005, footage of Election Day beatings aired on TV screens all over the country. Plainly, the regime has no plans for an encore. Far from an assault on free speech, the government has described all of these measures as part of a process of improving the regulation of independent media. But the new policies have had their intended effect. After decades of the state dominating the press, private Egyptian media had flourished since 2004, with the creation of newspapers and satellite channels and, with them, the rise of a newly professionalized industry. The media broached previously taboo topics, among them the question of who will succeed the octogenarian president, the airing of footage of violently suppressed protests and much else besides.
In 2008, Al Jazeera English broadcast footage of a Mubarak billboard being torn down and stomped on by protesters. The private production company Video Cairo Sat helped transmit the feed. The company’s founder, Nader Gohar, was subsequently charged with operating without a proper license, given a heavy fine and threatened with jail time. A higher court later overruled the verdict.
Muhammed Gohar, Nader’s brother, and chairman of Video Cairo, was among the providers notified that his own license for satellite equipment was revoked. He went on broadcasting, albeit illegally.
“We’ve been asking to regulate the use of technology in the news process for the last five years because there’s no country in the world that doesn’t have regulations. Instead everything was left haphazard,” Gohar explains. “Authorities definitely have cracked down on that, enough is enough. But do they really mean it? Are they sincere? Or would they want to use that against freedom of expression or the capacity of the foreign media to cover the story in Egypt?”
This ambiguity, suggests Issandr El Amrani, a prominent blogger and political analyst, might be just the impression the regime means to create. “There is an overall feeling of a chill you know, that new red lines are being drawn. But this feeling of ambiguity, of you’re not sure where the red line is, is quite important, because actually it makes people more cautious,” he says. “When you know where the red line is you push right up against it." With parliamentary elections only days away, it may soon be clear just where that line falls.
Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.