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May 02, 2013

EGYPT: Attacks on the Media

The U.S. government’s stated commitment to support democracy in Egypt is viewed with skepticism by civil society groups, media figures, and by many others in the country. Although the reasons for this may be varied, the United States must respond realistically to this challenge if it wishes to make Egypt a human rights success story. The recommendations in this report will not by themselves improve the U.S. position, but they are designed to help the United States prioritize a basic human right, and thus put it on the right side of the struggle for freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Demonstrated success to help improve on media freedom in Egypt would go a long way to legitimize U.S. intent in Egypt and the region––and its leadership for human rights and integrity throughout the world.

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The U.S. government is often seen as having a relationship too close with the current president, Mohamed Morsi, at the expense of engagement with other parts of Egypt’s divided polity. Many see this U.S. policy reverting to business as usual, conducting the relationship primarily through a single leader regardless of that leader’s adherence to human rights principles, including respect for freedom of expression.

Egypt now has several competing centers of power, including the president, the government bureaucracy, the judiciary, the parliament (when it is reconstituted), the military, private business freed from the constraints of operating in an authoritarian climate, and the new element of public opinion. Failure to respond adequately to these new and changing realities risks the U.S. government engaging in democracy prevention in Egypt, despite its stated intention to the contrary.

A major challenge for the U.S. government is that it is seen by many as doing business with President Morsi in much the same way as it did business with President Mubarak –– just as in the past, the U.S. government would “reward” President Mubarak for his cooperation toward U.S. foreign policy goals by ignoring his lack of progress on long-promised, but always postponed, political reforms. The early promise of the revolution, where media would be open, critical and unintimidated, is under threat as the Morsi government and its supporters seek to attack journalists who criticize it.

Some recent statements by U.S. government officials have addressed the attacks on the media, but some journalists, bloggers, and civil society groups say their concerns are underplayed by a U.S. government reverting to its old approach. While it is welcome that President Morsi is willing to cooperate with the United States in seeking to contain the crisis in Gaza, for example, it does not follow that he should therefore be exempt from meaningful U.S. pressure when he fails to move forward with human rights reform. Although Morsi was elected president in a competitive election, unlike Mubarak, he has failed to respect or establish other vital democratic institutions, including basic protections for media freedom.

For example, rather than building broad support for a new constitution, in November 2012, he pushed through a draft prepared by a 100-person constituent assembly dominated by representatives of Islamist groups, which was quickly approved by a referendum in which less than a third of the electorate took part. The approved constitution fails to provide adequate protections for basic rights and freedoms that are already under threat from existing legislation. For example, article 179 of Egypt’s penal code penalizes those who insult the president, article 308 provides for the punishment of those guilty of more general insults, article 98 deals with defaming religion, criminalizing “use” of religion “undermining national unity,” article 188 covers the vague provision of spreading false news, and article 178 deals with speech against public morals. “Criminal punishments are the primary means through which defamation law is enforced,” noted the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in May 2013.

Another problem journalists in Egypt face is a widespread lack of data on government operations, not least the spending and functioning of Egypt’s powerful military. One of the ways the U.S. government can seek to improve the transparency of government institutions in Egypt is through the leverage offered by annual military assistance of $1.3 billion. Military assistance provides an appropriate opportunity for the U.S. government to encourage and persuade the Egyptian military to be more transparent about its expenditures. The U.S. government should urge that at least some parts of the military budget be open to scrutiny by journalists and other members of the public.

A UNESCO report released in January 2013––Assessment of Media Development in Egypt–– measures the state of Egypt’s media against a series of media indicators that have previously been applied in ten countries. It is a detailed and useful study of the state of Egyptian media up to the end of 2012, and measures Egyptian media across five general areas, including regulation, the plurality and diversity of media, how it performs as a platform for democratic discourse, its professional and infrastructural capacity.

The report includes dozens of recommendations but was prepared before the release of the new constitution at the end of 2012, and many media analysts suggest there has been a significant change in the intensity of the attacks on the media since then.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government should continue to speak out publicly about physical and judicial attacks on media personnel in order to support journalists and others under threat.
  • Senior U.S. officials in Egypt should issue statements and hold events with other likeminded governments on media freedoms aimed to counter the idea that the United States is undermining Egyptian sovereignty but rather upholding universal principles.
  • The U.S. government, working with other likeminded governments and Egyptian civil society, should urge that any new Egyptian law on the freedom of information be aligned with international standards and practice.
  • The U.S. government should translate into Arabic––and publicize and promote in Egypt––the State Department’s newly released policy on engaging with human rights defenders worldwide, recognizing that journalists and other media figures are often human rights defenders.
    • If wanted by journalists and other media figures at risk, U.S. officials should visit them in their homes and places of work.
    • If wanted by journalists and other media figures at risk, U.S. officials should observe their court hearings.
  • The U.S government should make clear to the Egyptian public and government why it wants to engage with journalists and other media figures in Egypt, and make clear it does this as a matter of course in many other countries.
  • The U.S. embassy should coordinate with other embassies to offer and deliver training to journalists and media figures in Egypt and continue to offer training programs to journalists at all stages of their careers.
  • The U.S. government should use discussions around current and future military aid to Egypt to urge that parts of the military budget have greater transparency to the public and the media to promote a culture of openness and transparency of military operations and expenditure.
  • The U.S. government should use discussions around current and future military aid to Egypt to raise the issue of restrictive reporting on military issues, including notorious law 313, which severely limits reporting on military issues.
  • The U.S. government should use discussions around current and future military aid to Egypt to urge that the onus be on the Egyptian military to explain what information should be kept from the public and the media.