Without Impunity

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July 1998
V.II No.2

Silence in the Nile: Egyptian Freedom of Speech under Peril

"There is no censorship [in Egypt]" says Lufti Abdel Kadel, head of the office responsible for reviewing foreign printed media before entering Egypt, to a reporter from the Middle Eastern Times. "We prevent that which goes out of line only this. We see the newspaper and our people read it and when they find anything that is not good for our country, we contact the people responsible and we ask them not to print it again and we release the paper. This is what we do." And they do their job well. The Middle Eastern Times, like other newspapers, submit all of its issues to the official censors prior to publication. Stories that don't pass the censors' muster are eliminated from the final publication, assuring that the whole newspaper will not be banned - which can result in substantial economic losses to the publishers. The Ministry of Information has the right to ban any newspaper printed outside Egypt from entering the country, and it has never given a license to the Middle Eastern Time to publish in Egypt.

Egypt has been living under a state of emergency laws for nearly 30 years. This law confers wide-ranging and arbitrary powers on the President, including the power to censor newspapers and other forms of expression prior to publication, and to confiscate or close down their means of printing in the interest of public safety or national security. These laws have been broadly interpreted, and have lead to the confiscation of many newspapers. For example, the August 1996 edition of the Arabic monthly Al-Tadamoun was confiscated by the authorities for printing an article that questioned the mental health of Arab leaders for dealing with Israel and the US. Papers carrying information about human rights abuses or articles criticizing the President or friendly countries, are also often censored.

Self-censorship, however, is the greater threat to freedom of speech. The three largest-circulation newspapers are state-owned and follow the government line. Their editors-in-chief are appointed only with the approval of the President of Egypt. There are several newspapers of smaller circulation, generally associated with opposition parties, most of which are actually printed in government-owned publishing houses. In addition, they suffer from severe financial difficulties, as all state and most private advertising goes to the state-owned papers for both political and circulation reasons.

Egypt has set up censorship offices for practically all media. The government has monopoly control of all broadcasting stations, and censors are involved early in the creative process. Broadcasts and films are often banned not only for presenting views and policies distasteful to the government, but for arousing the sensitivities of the religious establishment. For example the film "The Wise Man Understands" was banned from TV because it portrayed a Muslim Sheik as a charlatan. Self-censorship in films and TV programs is also widespread, not only to escape the censors at home, but because the Egyptian entertainment industry relies heavily on the Saudi Arabian market. Saudi guidelines for productions are much more stringent prohibiting certain expressions such as criticism of religion, political systems, those in authority, swearing, references to horoscopes, etc.

Egypt is considered the center of Arab intellectual life, and thus it's particularly troublesome that censorship not only applies to the mass media, but also to books. Works by Egypt's foremost novelist, Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, continue to be banned for themes offensive to the religious authorities. At the Cairo International Book Fair, a government censorship bureau controls the exhibitions. In 1995, for example, Moroccan writer Mohammed Chokri had his books banned on the grounds of sexual explicitness. Academic books are equally threatened. In 1997, Islamic writer Khalil Abdel Karim had two of his works on early Islam confiscated for "distorting the image of the first Muslims and the Prophet himself as well as devoiding the Medina community of moral values."

Direct and indirect censorship are not the only threats to freedom of speech in Egypt. Journalists and writers also run the risk of imprisonment and death for expressing their views. Egypt's press and defamation laws are draconian, and the state of emergency law authorizes the President and the Minister of Interior to order the arrest and prolonged detention without charges of anyone deemed to be a threat to security and the public order. Journalists have been arrested for reporting on corruption in government, human rights violations in Egypt and even the private illicit actions of the families of government officials. An investigative journalist was convicted of "revealing military secrets and endangering the higher interest of the State" for writing an article exposing how retired Army generals were taking bribes in an arms deal. A newspaper editor is currently serving a one-year prison sentence on libel charges for publishing an article alleging that the son of the Interior Minister had refused to pay a hotel bill in Cairo. According to the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, 72 journalists were threatened with arrest for publishing offences in early 1998; several are already serving prison sentences.

Journalists for the foreign press also face threats to their freedom of expression. Unsuitable foreign publications are banned, and journalists whose coverage of Egypt offends the government are deported. The Minister of Interior, for example, has threatened to sue or deport any journalist whose stories on Islamic armed groups contradict the official version of events. Access to news can also be limited for foreign journalists; foreign journalists have at times been barred from covering the trials of Islamic militants.

Journalists and writers also face threats from Islamic fundamentalists. In 1992, Egyptian writer and human rights defender Farag Foda was shot dead by militants from a fundamentalist group. Farag Foda's book "To Be or Not to Be" had been banned and he had been prosecuted for "offending religion" two years earlier and a week before his murder, he had been branded as an apostate by Al-Azhar, the government-supported religious establishment. In 1994, Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck and seriously wounded by Islamic militants, after Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahmame, spiritual leader of the armed fundamentalist group al-Gama'a al Islamiyya, issued a fatwa excommunicating him. The fundamentalists have also used the justice system to harass and intimidate writers. In 1995, fundamentalists brought an action before Egyptian courts demanding the divorce of Quranic Sciences professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid from his wife, on the grounds that he was an apostate and a Muslim woman could not continue being married to a non-Muslim man. While the lower court threw out the case, the Court of Appeals reinstated it and ordered their divorce.

The court establishment support of the fundamentalists in this action is not altogether surprising. Islamic fundamentalists have made profound inroads in Egypt in the last few years, criticizing the secular and western-oriented stand of the government. As a response, the government has tried to reassert itself as Islamic, giving the religious establishment of Al-Azhar University a broad power of influence, which they have used to enhance the presence of religion in the public sphere, while curtailing expression distasteful to them. Government repression against journalists and writers, however, is not limited to only "secular" journalists - publications from Islamic fundamentalist groups are also banned.

There are, however, some hopes for Egypt. In addition to the continuous work of journalist groups and human rights organizations to expand freedom of speech in Egypt, new technologies are making censorship more difficult. Satellite dishes, which receive foreign signals, have become affordable. While there has been some attempt to regulate this (in 1994, for example, some cities banned the use of large dishes at coffee-houses because men were congregating in them to watch "erotic" Turkish programs), there are over 350,000 dishes in Egypt reaching millions of Egyptians. While not as widespread, the Internet also promises to bring a modicum of freedom of expression to the country. Three human rights organizations have web pages where they report on different human rights issues including the threats to freedom of expression. The Middle Eastern Times publishes copies of all their banned articles at their own web site. An estimated 50,000 Egyptians have access to the Internet, and so far there are no laws specifically regulating speech online. No efforts to censor, block, or punish online speech in Egypt have been reported, and ISPs are not required to submit information about the identities of Internet subscribers, or get clearance before issuing accounts or hosting websites.

We can only hope that the freedom of speech enjoyed by Egyptians online be extended to the rest of the media, rather than the other way around.