Sunday, November 13, 2011

Debating Press Freedom in Egypt, and Everywhere Else


Freedom House, the organization that rates the level of "freedom" in countries around the world and assigns scores, rated Egypt "not free" last year. America, was of course, rated "free." This year the verdict is still out, and more than ever the idea of rating such things seems farcical.
Because what I've been learning in Egypt is that freedom is not condensible. It's a complex mixture of history and the personal experiences of journalists themselves, who in countries both "free" and "not free" exercise varying degrees of self-censorship for varying reasons.
Egypt's state-owned newspapers once exercised a self-censorship under the Mubarak government, when all the editors were appointed. Now, editors in charge of these publications are trying to work out their relationship to the military leaders. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent paper Al-Tahrir, thinks it's an issue of culture. He described the situation at state-owned papers to the Guardian earlier this year as one of "journalists who lived and worked under the 30-year regime. There was only one ideology and opinion. They know only loyalty and hypocrisy."
Nevertheless, journalists have started to take to the streets like every other professional group. Manar Ammar of Bikya Masr reported a little over a month ago on journalists holding demonstrations against the military leadership's new censorship impositions. Columnists have left their columns blank, and last week talk-show host Yosri Fouda pulled his show from the air for three weeks to protest pressure he had been receiving from the military leadership.
On Sunday, I attended a seminar called "Media in Transition" at the headquarters of the national newspaper Al-Ahram. About a hundred people sat in Muhammad Hassan Heikal Hall, named for the first editor in chief of Al-Ahram after it was nationalized in the 1950s. He was a close friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser and he instituted a culture of self-censorship that many feel has lasted to this day. "This is a guy who has never met a conspiracy theory he doesn't like," wrote an anonymous commenter on The Arabist blog.
As the talks began, editors of Al-Ahram made vague statements about the problems that must be addressed. "Under authoritarian rule," said Abdel-Fattah El-Gebaly, Al-Ahram board chairman, "Egypt was better in terms of journalism than China, because of its deeply rooted ethics and values." Mohamed Sabreen, Deputy Editor in Chief said his paper was "hijacked" by the Mubarak regime, but is now "for the people."
Once the floor opened up, Al Ahram journalists railed against the buck-passing of their leaders. After the revolution, journalist Karem Yehia said, "we found advertisements on behalf of SCAF," the ruling military council. "What is that? A political bribe? What about the military trials of civilians? Not a word was published on that." The audience, composed largely of other Al-Ahram reporters, applauded.

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