Under Mubarak, state-owned media was a propaganda arm of the government, parroting party dogma while dismissing public criticism and political opposition. During the eighteen-day uprising that toppled him, state TV tried to downplay the size of the demonstrations, depicting protesters as funded, inspired or infiltrated by foreign elements ranging from Israel to Iran to Al Qaeda.
Television is by far the most important medium in Egypt. A recent public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute found that 84 percent of the population relied on TV as their main source of information during the revolution. While state TV acted as a government mouthpiece, under Mubarak, licenses for private-owned satellite TV stations were reserved for rich businessmen with varying degrees of closeness to his regime. Private channels were closely monitored by the State Security Investigations branch of the Interior Ministry.
The struggle for greater openness in the media under Mubarak came at a high cost. Outspoken journalists and bloggers were arrested, prosecuted and harassed for reporting on controversial issues. Police and plainclothes thugs beat and detained reporters, confiscating and destroying video footage and notes. Prison sentences were imposed on members of the independent media, including newspaper editors and reporters. Elements of the state security apparatus may have even posed as journalists to monitor civil society and opposition activists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
After Mubarak’s ouster, the struggle for press freedom is far from over.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which have been ruling Egypt since Mubarak stepped down, have actively clamped down on press freedom since taking charge of the country. For decades, the army was a taboo subject in Egyptian media. Laws dating back to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser prevent local journalists from reporting anything about the military without permission. This ban became difficult to enforce during the revolution, with soldiers in the streets and daily debates about the army’s role and its handling of the country, but the Supreme Council has sought to reinforce the restrictions. In late March the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Egyptian Military sent a letter to editors of Egyptian publications demanding they obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication, including “any topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the Armed Forces.” The Committee to Protect Journalists described it as “the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”
Over the past four months, several journalists have been brought before the military prosecutor for interrogation after reporting on the army. In the most recent case, on June 19, Rasha Azab, a journalist with the newspaper Al Fajr, was summoned to the military prosecutor along with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Adel Hammouda. Azab was accused of “publishing false information with the potential to cause public disorder” after she penned an article detailing a meeting between the Supreme Council and activists campaigning against the widespread use of military trials against civilians. After a few hours of interrogation, she was released without bail, but she still faces a possible prison sentence or fine. This came on the heels of the case of Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and activist, who was summoned to the military prosecutor on May 30, along with TV presenter Reem Maged, after the head of military police, General Hamdi Badeen, filed a complaint about El-Hamalawy’s comments on the private OnTV channel, in which he criticized abusive military police practices and held Badeen responsible for the torture of activists.