Egypt, Al Jazeera, and the suppression of dissent

A journalist walks past Egyptian army soldiers on a tank positioned outside Cairo's Tora prison, where the trial of Al Jazeera journalists and other foreign media took place, February 20, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Thursday, February 27, 2014

By Shenaz Kermalli

Egypt’s continued detention of three Al Jazeera English journalists, and one of their colleagues from Al Jazeera Arabic, comes in the midst of a long and convoluted campaign against independent media voices in the country. While Egypt has never been a stranger to censorship, the media landscape post-Mubarak seems to be experiencing it with a greater intensity than ever before.

Under Mubarak, freedom of expression was somewhat mixed. Although journalists were free in theory to publish whatever they wanted, they were still subject to numerous laws aimed at cracking down on dissent that could be used to penalize them for their work. Despite hope for progress after Mubarak, government repression has remained much the same, if not worse, under his elected replacement, the former president Mohammad Al-Morsi, and the current army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In addition to the prosecution of journalists, there have been two deepening trends in recent months: The demonization of foreign news outlets and the reactionary self-censorship of the local journalists who work for them.

Al Jazeera is just one of several networks that the Egyptian government has targeted, yet it is likely the one who has faced the most intense persecution in the wake of Mubarak. Historically speaking, the Egyptian government and Al Jazeera have long had a shaky relationship. The network has often been described by Egyptian security officials as the media wing of an enemy state, and distinctions are not usually made between the Arabic channel and its English-language equivalent. The Qatar-owned network is also the only high-profile outlet that consistently gives airtime to Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist leaders since the Egyptian government's ruthless crackdown last summer.

Government-sponsored news outlets are so effective in demonizing Al Jazeera that local Egyptian journalists are often harassed and accused of working with them. “I’ve had people try to attack me at protests screaming that I am a spy or that I’m Al Jazeera. They don’t give evidence; the accusations are enough to get an angry crowd gathered and then it becomes a very dangerous situation,” says one Cairo-based correspondent. The power of such rumours can be seen in a video posted last month by activists on YouTube where a police officer can be heard telling a crew for MBC Masr TV satellite channel to stop filming police officers standing in front of a Muslim Brotherhood protest or he would announce they were part of an Al Jazeera crew and allow them to be attacked.

The situation has become so dire that the local journalists who have worked with Al Jazeera and other foreign news outlets are having second thoughts. Ahmed Mohamed, a 27-year-old, says that as an Egyptian national, he no longer wants to risk working for a journalist with a foreign passport.

“I have to live in Egypt, I have to make my life here,” Mohamed said. “If [foreign correspondents] want to go to a protest and we get arrested, there is a good chance I could spend years in jail for every day they spend before their embassy or friends get them out,” he said. “I used to work with the British and the Swiss and the Germans. Now I’m looking for a nice local media job that will keep me out of jail.”

Mohamed says the trial of the three Al Jazeera English journalists charged with terrorism and false broadcasts was the final straw. “I went online to Facebook, and all I saw were pictures of Peter Greste,” Mohamed said, referring to one of the three on trial. “He has become the face of this and most of the world forgets about the Egyptians [Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Mohamed Fahmy, and Egyptian-Canadian] that were arrested with him,” he said.

The demonization of foreign correspondents comes from Egypt’s own media as well as from the government. Some newspapers have published articles alleging that Western journalists in Egypt are secretly working for foreign intelligence agencies, or are receiving payment from Gulf countries to write unflattering reports about Egypt. A pro-government television channel, Tahrir TV, even aired a video last week of the arrests of the Al Jazeera English journalists, set to dramatic music from the soundtrack of Thor: The Dark World, depicting it as a great intelligence coup for capturing terrorists. The demonization is all part of what some prominent Egyptian writers call a ‘media performance’ – an environment where journalists help construct an image of government that is so inflated, it becomes the dominant perception. It is a notion that renowned television comedian Bassem Youssef has poked fun at countlessly – enough times to have been arrested and have his show cancelled.

According to Youssef, punitive actions like these are not direct orders from Sisi’s army-backed government, but the result of an environment in which dissent is strongly discouraged. "You can always implement some sort of a mood, without actually giving direct orders," he said in an interview with The Observer (UK), earlier this month. "It is about creating a certain atmosphere that would make this acceptable or doable, and I think it reflects badly on everybody.”

Such an atmosphere, heavy with the implication of retribution for anyone who even goes so far as to acknowledge an opposition in Egypt, has the power to silence free expression in the country entirely.

Shenaz Kermalli is a Toronto-based journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern issues.