The Arab media paradox: Free expression amid repression

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By Khaled Diab

Frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices emerge.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

It is not just the news that is depressing. The state of the media around the world is increasingly becoming a cause for alarm. Tuesday 3 May was World Press Freedom Day and almost everywhere you turn your gaze, media freedom is under threat from governments, terrorist organisations, crime syndicates and corporate interests.

Freedom House’s latest report found that global media freedom was at its lowest level in a dozen years.

According to the Washington-based watchdog, only 13% of humanity enjoys access to a free press. Even in countries where freedom of the press is legally protected and supposedly sacrosanct, the media is experiencing mounting pressure, as governments exploit the threat of terrorism to enact restrictive legislation and populist right-wingers find ways to co-opt or muzzle the media.

A similar message is echoed by France-based Reporters Without Borders whose latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) has registered a growth in violations of nearly 14% since 2013. This reveals “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels” which “is indicative of a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests”.

These violations can verge on the insultingly absurd. An example that would ring familiar with many Arabs was the case late last year of a Thai man who was arrested for “lèse majesté” late last year for allegedly “insulting” not the ailing King Bhumibol himself but his beloved dog in a series of Facebook posts. As is often the case, the real target of the junta’s ire are the allegations the same man published about widespread corruption in high places.

In both rankings, the turbulent and conflict-ridden Middle East props up the bottom half of the global league and, according to Reporters Without Borders, is “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous regions for journalists”. Freedom House concurs, noting that “governments and militias increasingly pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a ‘with us or against us’ climate and demonising those who refused to be cowed”.

Journalists here are at risk from repressive regimes and their security apparatuses, armed militias and terrorist groups, religious radicals, not to mention the threats posed by regressive laws, those above the law or general lawlessness, depending on the location. With all the dangers to life and livelihood which independent media professionals in the region experience, it is almost a miracle that anyone would make journalism their career choice.

The main good news about the region’s media emanates from Tunisia, the only Middle Eastern country to rise in the PFI rankings. But even in the Arab uprisings’ greatest success story so far, journalists still face regular harassment and often exercise self-censorship.

The largescale war against media freedom in the Arab world actually distorts a key and perhaps paradoxical truth: never have Arabs enjoyed freer access to information and never have the region’s journalists and citizens mounted such a constant, consistent and comprehensive assault on the state’s media dominance. This is especially the case in the frontline states of the Arab revolutions.

The most incredible and laudable examples of this must be the journalists and citizen journalists working to record and broadcast the truth in the region’s war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Despite being the deadliest country for journalists in the world, many Syrians continue to put their lives on the line to  report on the crimes and violations of the Assad regime, ISIL and other armed groups. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the award-winningRaqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, a citizen-journalist group reporting independently out of ISIL-controlled territory.

Although government crackdowns have narrowed the space for free expression, frightening and cowing many in the process, the region’s courageous independent journalists have been forcing open the cracks left behind.

In this regard, the digital and social media have been a lifeline. Two prominent examples of this are the audacious and daring investigative journalism sites Inkyfada in Tunisia and Mada Masr in Egypt.

For their part, regimes have been fighting back. Not only have Arab governments invested heavily in surveillance and monitoring technologies, they have also sought to beat activists and revolutionaries at their own game by building up a dynamic propaganda presence online.

But frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they clampdown on free expression and try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices, whether underground or in broad daylight, invariably emerge.

This was amply been demonstrated by the remarkable media and protest campaign spearheaded by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate to defend press freedom, call for the resignation of the interior minister and demand an end to repression.

Although the days are long gone when Arab regimes enjoyed a near monopoly on the flow of news and information within their borders, they still act as though they can control the minds and consciousness of their citizens.

Once upon a time, Arab leaders could figuratively parade without clothes in front of their pliant media and hypocritical “Yes men” and nobody would dare tell the emperors they were nude. Though our leaders would love nothing more than our turning a blind eye to their naked lust for power, millions of Arabs are no longer willing to applaud our emperors’ new clothes. The Arab public has become unwilling to accept illusion and delusion as substitutes for actual change.

It is high time for Arab governments and other repressive actors to learn that the wise way to deal with criticism is not to shut down critical media but to respond to and engage with opponents and critics, and to enact meaningful and deep reforms.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 May 2016.

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.


New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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The reel story of Egyptian Jewry

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In telling the story of Egypt’s vanished Jewish communitya new documentary sheds light on a forgotten chapter of history.

Friday 29 March 2013


The Jews of Egypt, the reel history of Egypt’s Jewish minority, was due to be screened in Egyptian cinemas a couple of weeks ago, after the documentary had successfully featured in a number of domestic and international festivals.

As someone who is keenly interested not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also its human ramifications and implications, I was excitedly looking forward to the opportunity to see the much-awaited documentary upon my next visit to Egypt. In fact, so keen was I to view this ground-breaking documentary, and to meet its maker, that I travelled especially to Rotterdam a couple of months ago, but through some misunderstanding, director Amir Ramses did not manage to make the rendez-vous.

“I was very enthusiastic for the commercial release,” a jet-lagged Ramses told me from Cairo, shortly after getting off the plane from New York. “I thought that three years of work might finally be worth something and that the message I wanted to transmit was going to reach audiences on a larger scale.”

And the message? Through a mix of personal testimonies from Egyptian Jews in exile, statements from historians specialising in the era and archive footage, Ramses sought to shed light on a largely forgotten chapter of Egyptian history. He wanted to show that once upon a time Jews were an integral part of Egypt’s cosmopolitan social fabric and felt just as Egyptian as their Muslim and Christian compatriots.

In my view, this message is an incredibly important and relevant one. Decades of animosity and conflict have led to the redacting by both sides of the inconvenient chapters in which Arabs and Jews coexisted largely peacefully, leaving the impression that “Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia”.

Though I have personally been aware for years of the kaleidoscope of Egypt’s Jewish past, The Jews of Egypt was a golden opportunity to reacquaint a new generation of Egyptian audiences, beyond older people and a narrow intellectual elite, with this suppressed aspect of the nation’s identity.

In addition, the documentary represents some much-overdue recognition of the historical wrong committed against Egyptian Jews. Caught as they were in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict, between the rock of pan-Arabism and the hard place of Zionism, the Jews of Egypt first became ostracised and then were unfairly expelled or pressurised out of their homeland.

An Egyptian Jew I know from London, who was forced out of his homeland in his teens but still maintains ties with Egypt, shares these sentiments. “The film not only showed that Jews from Egypt felt strongly towards their time in the country and are fond of their experience there, but it would also have opened the eyes of a number of people concerning a past that seems to have been obliterated from their history,” said the man who wished for personal reasons to conceal his identity.

Sadly, however, it looked like this might not happen, after all. Even though Jews of Egypt  had received the necessary green light from the censor (and had even been viewed by the minister of culture as recently as December 2012), national security stepped in at the last moment and called off the release. Whether or not the film has actually been banned was unclear.

The sudden eleventh-hour decision to stop the screening left Ramses – who, along with producer Haitham el-Khameesy, self-financed this indie production in order to maintain its independence and ensure it does not serve one agenda or the other – unsurprisingly miffed, bewildered and furious. Interpreting the move as a means to “terrorise freedom of expression and suppress creativity”, el-Khameesy has indicated their intention to sue all the relevant authorities.

And it seems that efforts by the filmmakers and their supporters, and the ensuing stink abroad, led to a reversal of the decision and the film got another green light and was set to appear in theatres last Wednesday.

“I expected harassment before I got my permit, but I was ready for that and prepared to discuss the film with censorship committees. But they gave me the permit and I was relieved,” Ramses reflected. “But for national security to do something that is constitutionally not their right, that was a total shock.”

But what is behind this mysterious move – the sort of cloak and dagger arbitrary authoritarianism that Egypt’s revolutionaries had hoped would become a thing of the past?

“I think it must be the usual paranoia of the Egyptian authorities towards the word ‘Jewish’,” Ramses hypothesises, citing as an example of this, “when you say Jewish to a policeman, it’s like saying bogeyman.”

For his part, the director of the censorship committee, Abdel-Satar Fathi, who has “supported the film all along”,  says he called national security for an explanation. In confirmation of Ramses’s speculation about the state’s state of paranoia, the censor was told that “the film’s title might cause public uproar”.

The Egyptian Jew from London, who is now in his 70s, finds this contemporary distrust and hostility inexplicable and surreal. “It is ironic that when there were some 80,000 Jews in Egypt there was no rampant anti-Jewish feeling as there is today when there are hardly any Jews in the country,” he poses.

In my view, the fact that there are currently probably fewer than 100 indigenous Jews left in Egypt actually makes easier the strong anti-Jewish sentiment gripping most strata of Egyptian society. Most Egyptians never come into contact with Jews, and the only Jews they are regularly exposed to, through the media and popular culture, are two-dimensional Israelis who oppress Palestinians and deny them their rights.

This anger at Israel’s excesses towards the Palestinians has been accompanied by Arab powerlessness to do much about it. Rather than admit that Arab defeat is largely a symptom of Arab weakness and disarray, there are those who exaggerate the power of their enemy, which makes some subconsciously seek solace in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, first floated in Tsarist Russia, relating to Jewish plots for world dominance.

In contrast, when Egypt was home to a prominent, visible and diverse Jewish community, the fact that many people knew Jews personally or saw positive Jewish role models all around them not only tempered the suspicion with which majorities often view minorities but also presented a picture of surprising harmony. In fact, it would strike many as surprising today, but Egypt, particularly then-cosmopolitan Alexandria, was regarded as a safe haven, and land of opportunity, for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere.

Jews, perhaps unsurprisingly, were prominent in business, banking and industry – establishing Egypt’s most famous department stores and helping set up its first national bank as part of economic efforts to resist British domination.


Like Hollywood, Egyptian cinema, widely known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, was at first dominated by foreigners and minorities, partly because in the early days, people from “good families” did not go into acting and partly because of the creative insight being a relative outsider affords.

Though Jews were more often involved in production and direction, some of Egypt’s best-loved stars were Jewish. One example was the singer-actress Leila Mourad, who captivated an entire generation with her ethereal voice and girl-next-door demeanour, and whose films even brought Jews and Arabs together in mandate Palestine.

Although Mourad’s diva status was second only to that of Um Kulthum and she managed to hold on to her place in people’s hearts until she died, the Arab-Israeli conflict cast a long shadow over her later career.

She took early retirement at the peak of her fame in the mid-1950s, perhaps troubled by the Syrian-led Arab boycott of her films and music, though Egypt’s revolutionary regime defended her, and she was even briefly the first “voice of the revolution”. However, as a sign of her enduring popularity, a popular Ramadan bio-soap was made about Mourad – ironically, a Syrian production – which dealt sensitively with her Jewish heritage.

Looking back from my vantage point a couple of generations down the line, the thing that has most caught my eye as my awareness of Egyptian Jewry has deepened is just how closely involved Egyptian Jews were in Egyptian nationalism and the country’s struggle for independence.

For example, the name Yaqub Sannu might not ring many bells today, but in the 19th century he was a big deal in Egypt’s nascent nationalistic movement. This Egyptian Free Mason and Jew, whom my brother drew my attention to, established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses.

One extremely colourful revolutionary political agitator featured in Ramses’s documentary is Henri Curiel, the son of Egypt who spoke poor Arabic and the son of a wealthy banker who became a communist revolutionary. Even after he was exiled from Egypt and stripped of his nationality, Curiel continued to feel Egyptian and supported the region’s independence struggles from his base in France, especially in Algeria. According to Jews of Egypt, Curiel warned Nasser of the impending tripartite attack by France, Britain and Israel in 1956, though the Egyptian president did not take the warning seriously.

“I was surprised the most by the passion of the Jews of Egypt even after they were expelled. They never stopped loving their country. They never lost their sense of belonging,” Amir Ramses told me. “I made this film as a tribute to that time in history when Egypt was a cosmopolitan and tolerant country.”

Although there was a lot wrong with that era and I try to resist rosy-coloured nostalgia, narrow nationalism has caused Egypt and the Middle East to fall out of love with diversity and to become less tolerant towards difference. I hope in the future the region will be able to rediscover this spirit of acceptance.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 24 March 2013.

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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Disempowering Egyptian citizens

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By Khaled Diab

Despite its democratic aspirations, Egypt’s draft constitution excludes millions of Egyptians from enjoying full citizenship.

Monday 29 October 2012

Congratulations to all conservative, middle-aged male Muslims in Egypt. According to the draft constitution, you qualify as the model Egyptian “citizen”, and the state will be there for you all the way to uphold your rights and defend your freedoms.

However, if you happen to be a woman, a Christian, a follower of a non-Abrahamic faith or an atheist, or simply young, then Egypt’s contradictory constitution – which attempts but fails to strike a balance between secular liberal and conservative religious forces – leaves you vulnerable to the whims and wiles of the powers that be.

The document reflects the raging battle for the soul of Egypt between conservative Islamic and liberal revolutionary forces.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the constitution’s attitude to a full half of the population – women. Article 68 (one of the most hotly debated) begins promisingly by informing us that “the state will do everything to promote equality between women and men”, before delivering the sting in its tail, “without abandoning the judgments of Islamic law”.

The state will also patronisingly help women to “strike a balance between their family duties and their work in society”. So, the constitution is basically telling Egyptian women they are “equal” to men, as long as they obey their husbands or fathers and accept their secondary religious status.

In other respects, the new constitution contains numerous articles that, at first sight, are music to the ears of advocates of democracy and individual freedom. Article 1 tells us that Egypt is governed by a “democratic regime” which, according to article 6, is founded on “consultation, equal citizenship … pluralism [and] respect for human rights”. Other articles guarantee equality for all – regardless of gender, race or faith – and recognise personal freedom as a “natural right” and the right of everyone to a sense of “human dignity”.

Freedom of thought and expression is also safeguarded, and journalists, who have faced decades of draconian restrictions, should, in theory at least, rejoice at the constitution’s protection of their right to pursue their profession freely and to set up media outlets, with the only stipulation being that they notify the authorities.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of what the constitution giveth, it promptly taketh away.

Though the constitution guarantees freedom of belief, albeit only for Abrahamic religions, article 2 describes Islam as the “state’s religion” and vaguely refers to the “principles of shari’a” as the primary source of legislation. This is a ticking time bomb for Christians, whose current marginalisation could become open persecution if this stipulation is exploited to the full by radical Islamists.

Fortunately, the demand by some Islamists that Islamic law should be the sole source of legislation did not make it into the constitution, though the current statement that it is the “primary” source leaves the door ajar both to the modern reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and to the continued reliance on other, secular sources of legislation.

Nevertheless, no matter how liberally shari’a is interpreted, there is an essential tension between Islamic and modern, liberal secular law – at least in the mainstream view of it. This is eloquently expressed in other parts of the constitution. For instance, article 38 prohibits attacks on and affronts to “the prophets” – essentially an anti-blasphemy measure.

While for many pious Egyptians this will appear to be an even-handed way of protecting the sanctity of not just Islam but every religion, it conflicts with the principles of free expression the constitution claims to uphold. For instance, if I, as an agnostic atheist, express my heartfelt conviction that the Qur’an was authored by Muhammad or another human hand, and that the devil, who does not exist, had no hand in the “satanic verses“, will the state defend my freedom of expression or prosecute me for insulting the prophet?

Even among the religious, there is a wide spectrum relating to what is regarded as “insulting” to people’s essential beliefs. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, the very presence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be regarded as a tripartite insult, since each exists because it believes the others contain falsehoods.

This was dramatically demonstrated by the Egyptian Islamist preacher Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah who, taking a scorched leaf out Pastor Terry Jones’s book, recently set fire to a Bible.

Defending himself against legal charges that his action was insulting to Egyptian Christians, he claimed – rather offensively – that “There is no such thing as the Bible or the Torah, there is only the Qur’an.” This sounds remarkably similar to Pastor Jones – who is apparently running for president of the United States – attitudes to the Qur’an.

In a free country, and in a state that does not wish to turn wackos into martyrs, both Abu Islam and Terry Jones should be left to express their burning hatred, as long as they do not actually hurt or call for the hurting of others.

Even more troubling are the parts of the constitution that transform the state into a sort of Big (Muslim) Brother. Article 10 empowers the government to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing, religious and nationalist values and scientific facts”, while article 69 tasks the authorities with overseeing, among other things, “the spiritual, moral and cultural development” of young people.

This is not only a paternalistic insult to the generation that taught Egyptians the value of their dignity and freedom, it also raises the thorny question of whose morality. And what should happen to those youth who do not wish to live by the conservative Islamic morality that the authors almost certainly intended?

And the powers of this religious nanny state do not end there. Describing the family as the “cornerstone of society”, article 9 grants the state the power to preserve the “authentic nature of the Egyptian family … protecting its traditions and moral values”.

My personal experience of Egyptian families is that they possess thousands of different “traditions and moral values” – so which will the state enforce and does it have the right or power to impose its own vision?

And what will the state do to families that refuse to abide by its vision? “Re-educate” them? Take their children into its care? This is a truly scary prospect. For instance, my wife and I are raising our child without religion and have decided to let him choose whichever system of beliefs suits him once he is old enough.

If we move back to Egypt, will the state preserve our “natural right” to personal freedom and our constitutional right to human dignity or will it try to force us to raise our child as a “decent Muslim”?

The inherent contradictions in Egypt’s draft constitution, if it ever enters into force, will leave it wide open to individual interpretation and so Egypt’s future as a progressive, enlightened and tolerant state rests in the ability of liberal, secular, pluralistic forces to seize the upper hand from the Islamists.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 23 October 2012.

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The Arab media paradox

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By Khaled Diab

Despite the general Arab decline in the press freedom rankings, the region’s media have, in many ways, actually become freer.

Monday 13 February 2012

Since the Arab quest for freedom from authoritarian rule rippled out across the Middle East and even beyond from the unlikely epicentre of Tunisia, the region’s hopes and aspirations for freedom and dignity have never been higher, at least since the end of colonial rule.

Against this backdrop, Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) makes for a depressing and demoralising reality check – at least at first sight.

“The Arab world was the motor of history in 2011 but the Arab uprisings have had contrasting political outcomes so far,” the independent media watchdog said. “Most of the region’s countries have fallen in the index because of the measures taken in a bid to impose a news blackout on a crackdown”

The highest ranking Arab country is Lebanon (93), which is just behind regional leader Israel (92). This means that, given all the tied positions, around 100 countries have, according to the PFI, freer media.

On a relatively successful note, Tunisia, which provided the spark of hope which fired up the so-called Arab Spring and has since managed a fairly smooth transition to greater democracy, has risen 30 positions from 164th to 134th.

In contrast, my native Egypt – which captivated the world with its “Tahrir” spirit – has plummeted 39 positions to stand near the bottom of the global league at 166, sandwiched between Laos and Cuba.

Reporters Without Borders puts this down to “attempts by Hosni Mubarak’s government and then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] to rein in the revolution’s successive phases”. These tactics included the arrests and convictions of Egyptian journalists and bloggers, not to mention the harassment of foreign journalists.

And at a certain level this relegation is justified. “The Egyptian media grew inside the dictatorship system, which shaped its values, principles, views and its performance, so we shouldn’t expect to see serious change in media performance [so quickly],” argues Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and columnist. “The window to our freedom of expression is sadly still narrow.”

“Abuses against the freedom of the press have increased significantly,” says Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist based in Cairo who has been closely following the revolution. “In every paper, there is a military censor… Reporters and media personnel are targeted during their coverage of important events on the streets.”


Eskandar sites as an example how talk show host Reem Maged and her guest activist and journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy were summoned by SCAF due to on-air accusationsthat the military, which has tried to portray itself as the protector of the revolution, had attacked protesters.

That said, Eskandar feels that his profession has become “more meaningful”. “Politics is now at the forefront of people’s thoughts and the opposition is real,” he reflects. He also admits to feeling freer, despite the obvious dangers of harassment and even prosecution by a military court. “At times like these, it’s worth the risk,” he says.

For all its strengths, the PFI is imperfect and incomplete because it is based on the subjective scoring assigned by various observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical.

It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media. Reporters Without Borders admits as much. “The index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the media in the countries concerned,” the watchdog notes in its methodology.

What this boils down to is that the index can provide a misleading impression about the nature of the media in a given country. For example, someone who is unaware of the nature of the media in the region could easily conclude that Saudi Arabia (158th) enjoys greater media freedom than Egypt because it is eight positions higher in the index.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In many ways, it piles on insult to the injury already experienced by the dynamic segments of the Egyptian media which first faced down Mubarak’s state security apparatus and then SCAF’s military crackdowns, epitomised by the likes of dentist-turned-novelist-and-revolutionary-columnist Alaa al-Aswany whom Foreign Policy named its top global thinker for 2011. In contrast, most of their Saudi colleagues refused or have failed to rock the boat in the kingdom’s stagnant and closely controlled media.

Moreover, just because the regime hounds and intimidates journalists and tries to curb their freedom, that does not mean that it has been particularly successful in its endeavour. Sure, most of the state-owned media remains the loyal lapdog of whoever runs the show, whether it’s a pre-revolution dictatorship or a post-revolution junta.

But, in Egypt, it is really a  tale of two media, with the independent media breaking significant new ground, not only since the revolution but also in the years running up to it.

Although self-censorship remains something of a problem even in the independent media, as demonstrated by the controversy over the shelving of an entire print run of Egypt Independent, the revolution has galvanised legions of journalists and media personalities to take on SCAF as they did Mubarak.

Many Egyptian journalists and media personalities express a newfound pride in their vocation and an irrepressible determination to carry on exposing the truth. For instance, late last year, al-Tahrir TV’s talk show host, the hard-talking Doaa Sultan, dedicated a special episode of her talk show to mount a scathing if melodramatic attack on the Egyptian military and the media and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has co-opted as a fig leaf for its rule.

Moreover, there is a third pillar to Egypt’s media landscape that has overshadowed even the independent media, the social and citizen media, which spearheaded the revolution and refuses to be put down. A good example of this is the defiant blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad who, despite having spent more than 300 days behind bars (including at least 80 on hunger strike), was not cowed into silence. On his release, he said: “We have one enemy, the military regime and its political dictatorship … It is imperative that we bring [it] down.”

And that sense of defiance is Egypt’s greatest hope for the future.


This article was published in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 9 February 2012. Read the related discussion.

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Revolution@1: Foreigners without an agenda

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By Mariya Petkova

State-sponsored conspiracy theories have been bad for foreigners in Egypt. But Egyptians must not succumb to xenophobia and must be open to the world.

Thursday 26 January 2012

I was only three years old when the Berlin Wall fell and my country, Bulgaria, started on the road to democracy. I don’t remember much of the totalitarian regime that ruled for 50 years, other than the small red uniform that I had to wear to kindergarten. My parents have made sure that I know what they had to live through. They told me stories of fear, humiliation, and disgust. As much I sympathised with them, I could never fully understand what they felt for the first thirty years of their lives.

Then I came to Egypt, first as a student and then as a journalist. I could see the similarities between Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the communist dictatorship that ruled Bulgaria. I heard stories from Egyptians, read about torture, saw people emigrate because they couldn’t take it anymore, but I still didn’t fully understand their pain. The worst that used to happen to me was my taxi would get  stopped at night by the traffic police at the entrance to Maadi and my having to show my “white” face through the window to get them to expedite the check. Being “white” in Egypt allowed many of the expats to pay little attention to the suffering of their hosts. We were in such a position of privilege, getting treatment that most Egyptians never saw. I can’t remember how many times I heard Egyptian friends tell me that they don’t feel like citizens of their own country. “Egypt does not belong to the Egyptians,” they would say. And it was true. We, the “white” aliens, together with the Egyptian elite, hijacked the country. We had the kind of rights that the normal citizens should have enjoyed.

It came as a shock to many of us foreigners when state TV’s rumours about us being behind the uprising succeeded in  taking hold of the minds of many  Egyptians and we started being targeted on the streets. At the time, I looked at this phenomenon as “the massive loss of clear thinking and normal reasoning” – those were the words I used in my blog entry on 4 February 2011. Now that I think about it, the wild xenophobia that lasted about four or  five days was part of the catharsis of Egyptian people. They finally took us down from that pedestal of the untouchables that we had been sitting on.

For many of us, this was also a chance to get a taste of what billions of “non-white” people experience around the world – fear, persecution and injustice.

I wrote the above passage a week after my arrest by the military police on the day Hosni Mubarak fell (11 February 2011). The article never made it to print because my former Egyptian editor decided it was too dangerous to publish. Since then a lot has happened. What I thought was just four or five days of catharsis, turned out to be a year of chronic paranoia that some Egyptians have succumbed to. Without realising it, I myself have also fallen prey to the collective paranoia.

Every time at a Tahrir checkpoint, I would feel relieved to see the brow of the boy or girl from el-ligan el-sha’bia (the local, ad hoc security that popped up in the absence of the police) twist into a question mark at the sight of the Cyrillic characters in my passport. I would take photos sneakily, hoping no one would ask what I was doing. I would wear the same ragged jeans, worn-out shoes and jacket which I wore every day for the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak. I would almost definitely avoid being with Americans for too long at Tahrir. And just in case, I had prepared a short speech about “little Bulgaria” also suffering historically at the hands of the evil Western powers and having nothing to do with colonialism; oh, and by the way, we share common Ottoman heritage.

I was immensely happy three weeks ago to talk to an Egyptian in Bulgaria who was criticising the hell out of my country in a fancy Sofia restaurant. Ha! After Ahmed’s tirade, I have all the right to sit in Costa and criticise the messy political situation in Egypt, I thought happily.

A bit later, I realised that I had lost all my senses, that I have also fallen victim to the infamous Egyptian state TV broadcasting conspiracy theories about foreign agents and agendas. It seems that I was desperately trying to convince myself that I am not a “a’meela” (foreign agent) and I don’t have a secret agenda when I open my mouth to express an opinion about Egypt in front of an Egyptian.

Along with the regular flood of conspiracy theories and reports about apprehended spies of various nationalities broadcast on Egyptian TV, calls for the censorship of “foreign voices” have intensified and have come from the most unexpected places. Last month, al-Masry al-Youm’s editor-in-chief Magdi el-Galad published quite a lengthy rant in which he attempted to justify the censorship of an opinion piece in the English edition of the paper, Egypt Independent. The article written by Robert Springborg talks about cleavages within the ranks of the Egyptian army, which el-Galad probably considered too dangerous for himself to publish. He chose to mask his spinelessness in fiery “patriotic” words about dying for the Egyptian nation and foiling Springborg’s evil plot to hurt it, about snubbing the Pentagon, and yet forgetting to ask them to take back their $1.3 billion in annual military aid to the Egyptian army.

El-Gallad might be an obvious case, but Mona Abaza, a well-respected AUC professor, is not. A few months before the Egypt Independent affair, she wrote a piece published in al-Ahram and Jadaliyya in which she complains about Western academics flooding “local” Egyptian scholars with requests for assistance researching the Arab Spring. According to her, her Western colleagues come for just a week to visit the country and acquire the legitimacy of experts on the region. “Without sounding xenophobic,” Abaza says, trying to absolve herself of the xenophobia of her words, which do not distinguish between “some” and “all” Westerners.

There are plenty of mediocre Western journalists and scholars who not only do not understand the Middle East but also spread their faulty perceptions to readers in the West. However, there are also many who put a lot of effort into their research (without exploiting “locals”), who had been interested and lived in the region for a long time before the Arab Spring and have utmost respect for its cultures and peoplse. Elliot Colla, for example, who is an editor at Jadaliyya and who taught at my alma mater, is an excellent professor of comparative literature and a translator of Arabic literature. The Guardian has a staff of “Western” (non-local) correspondents in the Middle East such as Jack Shenker and Martin Chulov, who have done a great job covering events in the region. If el-Galad and Abaza were to give it honest consideration, they themselves could add quite a few additional examples.

I agree that Egyptians should tell their own story and I agree that the West should not meddle in the internal affairs of the country or try to set a direction for its transition. But it has to be recognised that the presence and the work of many foreigners on reporting and analysing what is happening in Egypt is of certain benefit to Egyptians. After all, international solidarity did play a role in Egypt’s revolution, and if Egyptians can comment on and criticise Bulgaria and the West, surely the reverse also applies. Limiting, harassing or completely censoring “foreign” voices will not bring any good to the country.

Throughout its 20 years of transition from communism, Bulgaria has rarely received coverage in the Western media and even more rarely positive coverage, which, I admit, can be annoying. But I would rather see more criticism of my country that would move and shake its stagnant system than be happy with the status quo in which some Bulgarians congratulate themselves for not making it every day on to international front pages like bankrupt Greece does.

Happy first anniversary, revolutionary Egypt!


This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

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Arab spring and Turkish autumn?

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By Andrew Eatwell

Is Turkey truly a role model for the Arab Spring or is it actually a secular democracy in its autumn years?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

In the midst of the Arab Spring, Turkey is being looked to as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab states: a large, mostly Muslim country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule, led by a popular democratically elected government. Surely, conventional thinking goes, the so-called ‘Turkish model’ is a template for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya or a post-Saleh Yemen.

But as people in many Arab countries look forward to a new democratic dawn, many Turks are wondering if their secular democracy is not moving into its autumn years.

In recent months, as Tunisians and Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, Turks watched as police rounded up journalists, bloggers and military officers. As Arab revolutionaries coordinated anti-government protests over the internet, the Turkish government announced new internet regulations that critics say will increase censorship and restrict freedom of expression.

Many secular Turks worry that opposition to years of authoritarian rule in the Arab world is running parallel to rising authoritarianism at home. And they fear what will be next if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the upcoming general election on June 12, as is widely expected.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to curtail the power of the meddlesome military – long the guardian of Turkish secularism – and the country’s militantly secular judges. A former radical Islamist who was once jailed for inciting religious hatred and whose party was previously banned, Erdoğan has reincarnated himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), publicly espousing a moderate, democratic brand of political Islam. As such, he has framed his efforts to trim the influence of the secular military as a step toward full-blooded Western-style democracy rather than a step away from secularism.

Outside Turkey, Erdoğan, in his new incarnation, has been widely applauded. A constitutional reform package that was approved in a referendum last September won praise from Western officials and the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join (though obstacles on both sides have recently cast shadows over the membership process). The reforms, which Erdoğan will seek to implement should he win the 12 June election, allow for previously untouchable army officers to be tried in civilian courts – in line with EU norms – and put an end to the legal immunity of top military officials implicated in a 1980 coup. It also increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s highest – and on the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Inside Turkey, Erdoğan, who grew up in a poor Istanbul neighbourhood, became a semi-professional football player and went on to serve as mayor of the city in the 1990s, remains popular in low-income urban areas and in the country’s conservative rural Anatolian heartland. He is credited with bringing jobs and economic growth, taming formerly rampant inflation and doing more than any previous leader to move Turkey along the road to EU membership.

But in fast-modernising areas of major cities and coastal towns, many secular Turks question his aims.
They see the army, which has had a hand in the overthrow of four governments in the last 50 years, not as a threat to democracy per se but rather as the guardian of Turkey’s secular political order, a role it has played since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a senior army commander, established the modern republic in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

For them, Erdoğan’s efforts to curtail the military’s power risks opening the door to Islamisation. And they worry that the independence of the courts, which have strictly upheld the secular Constitution, will be undermined by the increase in the number of judges, more of whom will be appointed by the president and parliament, currently under the control of Erdoğan’s AKP.

Opinion polls suggest the AKP will easily win the 12 June election, picking up around 45% of the votes, a similar percentage to in the last election in 2007. The main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, is on track to garner around 30% of votes, 10 percentage points more than in 2007. Despite that, the AKP stands a chance to increase its strength considerably and win an absolute majority in the 550-seat parliament if the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drops below the 10% threshold needed to enter the chamber. Hit by a series of sex scandals – made public in videotapes distributed over the internet that have so far led to the resignation of four party members – the MHP currently looks likely to win 13% of votes, opinion polls suggest.

If the MHP fails to maintain sufficient support to enter parliament come election day, the AKP will all but certainly pick up enough seats to push its constitutional reform package – and many other laws – through parliament unchallenged. That has put secularists on edge in light of the events that have followed the constitutional referendum.

In February and again in April, dozens of military officers – among them 30 serving generals – were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in the so-called Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. And, over the same period, journalists were detained and blogs closed down for allegedly supporting another group of similarly likeminded coup-mongers in a separate case known as Ergenekon. Critics, among them law professors, political analysts and rights groups, say that the evidence in both cases looks flimsy and, in some instances, may have even been fabricated. Some have likened the investigations to a witch-hunt against opponents of the AKP.

“The Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated – and manifestly fictional – clandestine organisation was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years,” writes Istanbul-based political analyst Gareth Jenkins. “Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims – and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence – were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.”

Having already tamed the country’s largest media conglomerate, Doğan, with draconian fines for alleged tax fraud, the arrest of journalists, bloggers and the closure of an internet portal, Oda tv, which was critical of the AKP, are increasingly being seen as attempts to silence dissent and muzzle free speech.

With more than 50 journalists taken into custody in recent months, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process’ (and) reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation’,” Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent World Report.

Members of the European Parliament pressed the issue in April when Erdoğan visited Brussels. Specifically, he defended the arrest of several journalists, a raid on the offices of leftist-liberal daily Radikal and the seizure of a book (banned by the government but widely circulated over the internet), all linked to the Ergenekon affair.

The book, titled The Imam’s Army and written by arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, could be explosive, Erdoğan appeared to suggest: “It is a crime to use a bomb but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?”

The government’s attacks on press freedom, combined with Erdoğan’s increasing hostility to Israel and warming relations with Iran, have undoubtedly tarnished relations between the NATO ally and Europe and the United States. Turkey’s chances of joining the EU anytime soon are looking increasingly slim and are likely to only get slimmer if the Erdoğan government continues down its current path.

Confiscating books, closing websites and blocking internet content is not new in Turkey: the government barred access to YouTube in 2008 over a video that was deemed to be insulting to Ataturk, a criminal offense under Turkish law. It lifted the ban two years later when the content was removed.

Previously, US officials had complained about the “absurd” trial of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for writing about the death of up to one million Armenians in 1915, a deeply neuralgic issue in Turkey.  “It will take much work to convince the Turks that freedom should cover the right to criticise and open guarantees to protect that right,” wrote former US Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Pamuk affair in a 2005 cable made public last year by WikiLeaks.

In the latest – though not entirely surprising – twist, the Turkish government has refocused its attention on the internet, announcing plans to implement new regulations that will effectively give it even more control over what content Turkish surfers can see. Under a regulation entitled “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet” that is due to go into effect on 22 August, internet users will be given four filtering options to choose from: “family,” “child,” “domestic” and “standard”, each of which will give them access to a certain set of websites. The government claims that it is taking the step in order to protect children from pornography and uphold “family values” but it has not made clear which websites will be blocked and the most open “standard” package is still expected to maintain the restrictions Turkey already imposes.

“There is no time in Turkey when we do not face new censures and pressures. There are many barriers put in front of the right of people to be informed in Turkey,” the main opposition CHP said in an online statement, comparing the internet restrictions to the censoring and imprisonment of journalists. “You close websites, we will open them,” the party said, promising the change if it wins the forthcoming election.

In 2009, the government stopped releasing figures on the number of blocked sites (most of which are restricted arbitrarily by government officials without court orders), but it is now believed to be in excess of 8,000. Most of them contain pornographic material, though websites linked to Kurdish rights groups, blogs critical of the government and even some foreign media sites are also blocked.

“Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, you can be put on the blacklist,” says Nadire Mater, the head of the Turkish human-rights website Bianet. “This is not a democracy.”

Under the new measures, attempting to access restricted sites – using proxy servers abroad, for example, as many Turks previously did to watch YouTube – could lead to arrest and hefty fines. Erdoğan’s government has tried to persuade Turks that the filtering system is similar to that offered in some European countries, while failing to point out that no Western democracy bans websites to the extent that Turkey already does.

Internet campaigners and human rights groups say the move will put Turkey on a par with China and is inconsistent with the provisions on freedom of expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Turkey has signed.  “We will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it,” warns Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an IT reporter for the Radikal daily.

The planned restrictions on the internet drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest on May 15. They carried banners warning that the new regulations portend the “death of the internet” in Turkey. Many may well worry that they are also witnessing the death throes of their secular democracy.

©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved. Published here with the author’s consent.

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Egypt: a society of taboos

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By Osama Diab

Rather than encouraging people to make moral choices, religious groups in Egypt are imposing their values by law.

June 2009

“Haram, Hara-a-am” (“It’s forbidden”) shouted the conservative Coptic dad when his son asked if he could go to the cinema across the street. The young boy was never able to watch a film, despite living next to a theatre, because art destroys family values, wastes one’s time and you end up burning in hell, according to the father.

This was part of the controversial Egyptian film Bahib el-Sima (I love cinema), the first movie that had the guts to show how religious zeal can have an ugly side and lead to lies, pedantry, hypocrisy and may be even perversion in society.

I remembered Bahib el-Sima when a court issued a ruling this month to block “venomous and vile” pornography websites in a case filed by Islamist lawyer Nizar Ghorab, who argues that porn destroys Egypt’s social values. AFP quoted the court as saying, “Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism.”

Ghorab is also confident that the government won’t appeal because it will put the state in the awkward position of defending pornography. “Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately,” the Islamist lawyer told the BBC.

This came just a week after some of Egypt’s emo community were arrested and also accused of destroying the country’s social values, an accusation that seems to be used by the authorities to hinder any social change or reform.

People who are against the ruling can’t really express it in Egypt because of the taboo that surrounds anything sex-related. It’s still hard to imagine protesters in front of the court house chanting “keep the porn”.

Ghorab insulted not only his religion but the entire Egyptian population by taking this issue to court. His action implies that Egyptian people need to be treated like kids and be told what they are allowed to see and what they are not by people like Ghorab, who apparently knows better than everyone else. It also implies that Egyptian people have reached the point where they can’t find out for themselves if porn is good or evil. This ban will only bring back the days when a schoolboy with a sex tape can have more authority than the school principal, rather than convince people porn is bad. This case also raises a vital question, are Egyptian social values so vulnerable that they need a law to protect them?

Imposing the moral values of a segment of society on the rest of the people is the real threat, not porn. Self-righteousness and the inflicting of one’s values by law is what should be banned, not videos showing the naked body. People should be able to decide for themselves if they want porn or not.

The fear of many is that rather than develop values through education and debate, the government will increasingly use media bans to control thought and quash dissent and debate in the name of protecting a susceptible population.

Magi, an Egyptian blogger, is afraid of just such an eventuality. “I am not pro-porn sites but I am worried that one thing would lead to the other; today they block porn sites and tomorrow they will turn to blogs,” she writes on her blog …

Gihan Abou Zeid, a human rights researcher, compares what is happening in Egyptian society to a mother who holds on to her kids more tightly when they are under threat. According to her, Egyptian society is reeling from the threat of opening up even more to other cultures in the age of globalisation, which is why people are sticking more than ever to their traditions.

I don’t claim that watching women and men having sex is an essential part of freedom of expression, but the ban is a clear indicator that religious groups are trying to impose their beliefs on others. Creating more taboos and sensitive topics is what I think poses a threat to freedom of expression and thought. Ghorab and his ilk should focus on their own individual lives and morals instead of bothering with what people see on their computer screens or do with their hands behind closed doors.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 31 May 2009. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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