In recent weeks the government took a satellite television channel off the air and brought criminal charges against one of its talk show hosts who is outspokenly critical of President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood veteran. The editor of a privately-owned newspaper is also due to go on trial next week on charges of inciting violence and spreading false information about the president.
Also raising concern were the recent appointments by the Brotherhood-dominated upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, of the editors of major state-owned media outlets. Some of the appointees have a background of provocative stances regarding religious minorities. The new editor-in-chief of one of the papers, al-Akhbar, is already being accused of censoring columnists critical of the Brotherhood.
“We are very concerned by reports that the Egyptian government is moving to restrict media freedom and criticism in Egypt,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
Freedom of the press and freedom of expression, she said, were “part and parcel of what the Egyptian people went into the streets for,” referring to the protests that brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime early last year.
Nuland expressed particular concern about steps taken against a small independent paper, al-Dostour (“The Constitution”) and against the Al Fareen television channel.
Authorities have seized copies of Al-Dostour and accused it of “harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law,” according to the official Middle East News Agency. Its editor, Islam Afifi, is due to go on trial on August 23.
Al Fareen talk show host Tawfiq Okasha is to face trial on September 1.
The Muslim Brotherhood denied claims that it was trying to “Islamize” the media.
Qutb al-Arabi, chairman of the Brotherhood’s journalists’ committee, said the charges were part of a “political war of attrition,” accusing politicians from leftist and Nasserite parties of trying to discredit every achievement of the Brotherhood.
Arabi was quoted in an article posted Thursday on the Brotherhood’s website, which complained about media headlines like “Confiscation and Closure of Newspapers,” “Freedom of Expression Violated,” and “Journalists Harassed and Intimated.”
He said no such “sensational” headlines had met a decision by a liberal party, Wafd, to remove the chief editor of its online news outlet, Adel Sabri, last month. (Reports at the time linked the decision to poor performance and editorial differences.)
In the case of the Shura Council appointments, however, new editors were installed in major state-owned publications, including the two biggest-circulating papers in the country, rather than the mouthpiece of a small political party.
Arabi said the Shura Council had appointed new editors because the legal term of employment of their predecessors expired last March.
He said the lawmakers had consulted with media professionals, and that the process had been going smoothly until some editors, who had been appointed by the military council, “suddenly felt threatened, and started a raucous riot.”
Newly-appointed Information Minister, Salah Abdel-Maksoud – a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – has also defended the process.
“I do not seek to impose any specific ideology or political orientation,” he said. “All I call for is that we should cooperate all-together to present professional, objective and impartial media expressive of all Egyptians across the political spectrum.”
A report in Al-Ahram Weekly last May outlined criteria laid down by the Shura Council for those in the running for the state media editorships.
They included at least 15 years’ experience in the media, no prior participation in “corruption political life,” and no previous writing supportive of “normalization with Israel,” it said.