Middle East Features
(eca007): Egypt clamps down on media as elections near (Feature)
By Aya Batrawy and Yasmin El-Rifae Oct 15, 2010, 4:37 GMT
Cairo - As Egypt's parliamentary elections near, several media outlets say they are coming under pressure, reversing a trend that for some years saw information flow more freely through blogs and websites.
The High Committee for Elections has not yet announced an exact date, but the vote is supposed to take place in November, and the recent crackdowns lead observers to believe the elections are not far off.
The latest moves include banning television stations from the airwaves, sacking a prominent editor-in-chief of a newspaper and enacting tough new regulations for broadcasters.
'It's part of a disturbing trend,' said Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists. 'With elections on the horizon, it is vital that Egyptians are not deprived of these news sources.'
The government said it is trying to regulate what it terms unauthorized media outlets. Officials have denied accusations that political pressures led to the sacking of reporters.
But concern lingers among members of groups pushing for reforms in a country that has been led by President Hosny Mubarak for the last 30 years.
This week, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) spooked opposition groups further when it ordered that media companies register for permits before they can send out SMS text messages to mobile phones.
Companies initially targeted included popular independent daily newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, which is often critical of the regime. They reported that to keep SMS rights they 'are expected to pay' 500,000 Egyptian pounds (87,700 dollars) for the permit and the same for insurance in case they are found violating the new regulations.
The NTRA could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts on Thursday.
'The recent incidents show clearly the government's plan to control all media outlets before elections in November 2010, which pave the way to the presidential elections in 2011,' wrote the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, an Egyptian group.
Groups like the banned yet tolerated Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's largest opposition party - were preparing to use SMS messages as part of their campaign for seats in parliament.
Mohamed Habib, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told the German Press Agency dpa that the government was seeking to silence critics.
'Independent journalism has a crucial role in keeping watch over the regime and exposing fraud or abuse of power, particularly during the time of elections,' said Habib.
The Islamists have faced crackdowns from the Egyptian government for over five decades.
When the government recently ordered its satellite television provider, Nilesat, to stop the broadcast of four independent television stations, there was little surprise that three were religious channels geared to a Muslim audience.
The government said the stations were banned for violating licensing agreements. Two more independent channels were given warnings.
Omar El-Hady, who writes about the media for al-Masry al-Youm, said journalists have historically faced restrictions in Egypt, but even by local standards the crackdown is severe.
'Journalists have been physically assaulted and intimidated by security forces while covering past elections,' said El-Hady.
Like some members of the opposition, he voiced fears that the upcoming elections will be tainted with either intimidation of voters or other tactics that will ensure Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party retains power.
'We might say this current trend is a tightening of control over the press ahead of the fraud that is expected to take place in the parliamentary elections,' he said.
Even figures believed to have been on good terms with the government have found themselves out of favour.
The popular television programme, al-Qahira al-Youm, presented by journalist Amr Adeeb on the independent Orbit satellite network, was cancelled last month in a move that has been described as politically motivated.
His show often discussed corruption in Egypt and highlighted everyday problems faced by Egyptians.
Ibrahim Eissa became another jobless journalist earlier this month, when he was sacked as the editor-in-chief of al-Dustour, an opposition daily. The paper was bought out by a businessman who within 24 hours of gaining control fired the top employee.
'They bought the newspaper for 4 million dollars, just to stop me from writing,' Eissa told Foreign Policy magazine. Reportedly, the businessman who fired the editor went on to sell all his shares and end his involvement in the investment within days.
Al-Dustour - whose writers have since gone on strike - had caused the ruckus when it planned to print an article by opposition figurehead and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei.
Other journalists in the country have said they have been told to tone down their content when writing on the opinion pages.
Even sports reporting is being watched by the government.
Commentator Alaa Sadek was banned from appearing on any TV sports programmes after he leveled criticisms at the interior minister for not providing adequate security for his staff at a football match.
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