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Egyptian Journalists in Court Reminiscent of Mubarak Era

Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s Al-Dostour newspaper, is in the same place today that his predecessor was in four years ago: a courtroom facing charges of insulting the president.

“I’m worried about everything now -- my freedom as a journalist and my freedom as a citizen,” Afifi said in an Aug. 23 interview while in detention in Cairo. “This is an old scenario that has been rehearsed before many times” under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak. It’s an “attempt to silence the voice of freedom,” he said.

Afifi isn’t the only journalist facing pressure. In recent weeks, the government has confiscated newspapers and appointed an information minister from the Muslim Brotherhood’s ranks. It also named new editors-in-chief of state-run newspapers, spurring criticism from journalists that President Mohamed Mursi is filling the industry with backers and Islamists.

Egyptian journalists and rights groups say the government, which is backed by the Brotherhood -- itself outlawed during Mubarak’s 30-year rule -- is attacking critical media while turning a blind eye to those that support Mursi.

Information Minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud has vowed to protect media freedom while admonishing journalists -- some of whom have accused Mursi’s party of planning massacres and attacking security forces -- to be accurate and unbiased.

‘Welcome Criticism’

“The government and the president welcome constructive criticism,” Abdel-Maqsoud told state-run Al-Ahram in an Aug. 26 interview. “What we don’t want are campaigns of skepticism, image-distortion and distracting the public away from the main issues.”

Afifi was released on Aug. 23 after Mursi issued a decree barring the detention of journalists awaiting trial. His trial resumes Sept. 16. His predecessor, Ibrahim Eissa, was sentenced to two months in prison in 2008 for spreading rumors and inciting fear by writing about Mubarak’s health. Mubarak pardoned him. Eissa is now the editor-in-chief of Al-Tahrir, an independent newspaper that’s critical of the Brotherhood.

“There have been cases of violations by some publications and television channels, but there have also been violations by the state through the use of laws that must be reviewed” in a country that now says it’s committed to freedom and democracy, said Ayman Al-Sayyad, an executive consultant at the Cairo-based Mohamed Hassanein Heikal Foundation for Arab Journalism.

‘Stifle Freedom’

Television talk show host Tawfik Okasha faces allegations of inciting supporters to kill Mursi. Okasha in June accused the Brotherhood of coordinating with Hamas, Hezbollah and Qatar to set fire to buildings and police stations during last year’s revolt, under the supervision of U.S., Iranian, British and Turkish intelligence agencies.

His privately owned Al-Faraeen channel was ordered off the air Aug. 9. It was an expected decision “given the battle between me and the Brotherhood,” Okasha said in an interview.

The Aug. 11 edition of Afifi’s Al-Dostour was prevented from being distributed because it allegedly insulted Mursi. Afifi was charged with publishing rumors and false news. In June, days before Mursi was confirmed president, Al-Dostour said the Brotherhood was planning the “massacre of the century” if Mursi failed in his electoral campaign.

“This is part of a systematic plan by the Muslim Brotherhood to stifle freedom of the press and oppress writers,” said Ibrahim Khalil, the former editor-in-chief of state-run newspaper Rose al-Yousef, who was dismissed as part of the new appointments. Khalil faces lawsuits filed by the Brotherhood’s leader, Mohammed Badie, for allegedly publishing false news that was later aired on state-run television.

State-Run Papers

Egypt’s state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper this month refused to print an article criticizing the Brotherhood, writer Youssif El- Qaeed said. The article, which denounced the Brotherhood for allegedly beating journalist Khaled Salah for criticizing Mursi, was banned by the editor-in-chief, Mohamed Hassan El-Banna, El- Qaeed said. The article was later published in Al-Tahrir.

Al-Akhbar also allegedly pulled an article by Abla al- Rowaini from its Aug. 10 edition because she criticized the appointment by the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament of editors-in-chief at newspapers affiliated with the government, according to Al-Tahrir, which published the piece.

El-Banna denies both charges.

“No articles got barred,” he said in a telephone interview. “Al-Rowaini’s article wasn’t published that day because we were in the process of revamping the newspaper,” adding that his own daily column was also halted.

El-Qaeed “wasn’t a contractor and I used my prerogative as editor-in-chief to prioritize other writers. These claims are false,” El-Banna said. He said he also rejects charges that Egypt’s press is being muzzled or intimidated.

No Limits

After the revolution, “freedom has been loosened with no sense of responsibility. This is normal, after many years of bottling it all in, but it also calls for regulations as per internationally approved codes,” El-Banna said.

At least 16 channels have been added since the revolt, said Rasha Abdulla, an associate professor and former chairwoman of journalism at the American University of Cairo.

More lawsuits against those who insult the Brotherhood should be expected, said Abdel-Moniem Abdel-Maqsoud, the group’s legal adviser and brother of the information minister.

There is a “vilification campaign” targeting the Brotherhood, Abdel-Maqsoud said in an interview. “To criticize and object to the performance of the Brotherhood or its party is a non-negotiable right of media channels, and no one interferes with that. However, news fabrication, spreading lies or insults are what we will legally chase.”

Lost Credibility

The U.S. has voiced concern about the clampdown and is “watching it closely,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Aug. 16. “Freedom of the press, freedom of expression are fundamental tenets of vibrant, strong democracies.”

State media, which for decades was used by Mubarak and his predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, to attack the opposition, have lost much of their credibility, said Shahira Amin, the former deputy head of state-run Nile TV. Amin announced in the final days of last year’s uprising that she was quitting because of restrictions on her ability to report. The government this month banned state-run media from interviewing Israeli commentators. In June, seven board members of the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists withdrew from a meeting with the speaker of the Shura Council after objecting to the upper house’s interference in state media.

“It’s an all-out war by the Brotherhood against liberties,” said Gamal Fahmy, a deputy at the syndicate, which represents the industry’s workers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dahlia Kholaif in Kuwait at dkholaif@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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