CAIRO: With the recent annulment of Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Abdel-Nasser Al Zoheiry’s sentence, this piece was almost unnecessary; but then, less than a week after his release, Amira Malash, a reporter with Al Fajr newspaper, was imprisoned. Egyptian media have been at the forefront of international and national news, and it’s not been good for the country. Al Zoheiry was imprisoned for allegedly slandering Egypt’s former housing minister Ibrahim Suleiman in a news story, and was sentenced to one-year in prison for his involvement in the story. Al Zoheiry’s jail time reveals more of the current situation facing the media in Egypt. Malash was given a one-year term and a LE 10,000 fine for libel. Where have the promises of an unrestricted press gone in this country?
It is not the first time a journalist has been imprisoned in Egypt for something he or she wrote, but as optimism calls, it could be the last. Unfortunately, the current political atmosphere in Egypt doesn’t make this assertion likely.
A year ago, there was a promise to prohibit the imprisonment of journalists for stories they wrote yet, on the anniversary of that promise, nothing seems to have changed. Last year, when President Hosni Mubarak announced a desire to promote democracy in Egypt, there was a sense of excitement that crept through the country. People began to believe that change was possible and no longer were they given empty promises that would never be achieved. But now, almost a year later, the situation is starkly similar to how it was last March. Has nothing changed?
On a flight back to Egypt in September, I was told to wait at the border. Supposedly, my name came up on some sort of flag. I waited for a few hours, wondering what exactly the problem was. It turned out that an opinion piece I wrote in the Washington Examiner in June has sparked interest by the Egyptian government. While I was not forced to return to Europe, the experience revealed that there is still a lot of work to be done in this country to fulfill the dream of having a free and open press. I didn’t push the incident at the airport, as I still have visions of the Egyptian Ministry of Information granting me a press card. Maybe speaking up would have been a better idea. Who knows?
Unfortunately, not all foreign reporters are as lucky as I was. A few years ago, Charles Levinson, an established reporter now working in Baghdad, was stopped at the Cairo International airport. Confused, they told him that he was not allowed to enter Egypt. Levinson had been working in Cairo for more than a year at the time and was quickly making a name for himself. Supposedly, he was not given permission to be in Egypt because of a story he had written in the United States. While his banishment did not last long, it showed that even foreign journalists were not immune to intervention from the powers that be.
The Journalist’s Syndicate has been instrumental in trying to clear Al Zoheiry and has condemned state intervention, claiming that the promises given to journalists have not been upheld. Unfortunately the Syndicate is correct in asserting that promises are going unfulfilled in this country.
Foreign reporters are in a better position than their Egyptian counterparts. If Levinson, or even myself, had been Egyptian, we could have been arrested and thrown in prison. This double standard must end if Egypt is to show the world that they are a leading force in the region. Not only would it make the job of being a reporter less stressful, it would show Egyptians that the promises made by the government over the past year are coming to fruition. There is no turning back now; this cannot be understated. One thing is certain: journalists, whether they are foreign or Egyptian, cannot sit back and simply say “that is how it is here. If we do nothing, and say nothing, Egypt will not continue to lead the way.
What is to be done in order to protect reporters while they are on the job? First, if there is a real strong push for democracy in this country, the press must be the first entity to see the light of day. Democratic governments across the globe, save maybe the United States, have a hands-off policy when it comes to the press. While they may intervene when national security is at stake, for the most part there is no government intervention.
This is seen clearly in the current debacle over the Danish newspaper that ran the inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet. While the cartoons are reprehensible and probably should not have been published, the Danish government did the right thing. They didn’t intervene into the affairs of their nation’s press. Egypt can learn from this incident. There needs to be a hands-off policy on the press here. If not, the democratic institutions that Mubarak wants cannot progress.
With local elections postponed for two years, this is the time when the Egyptian government can show Egypt and the world that they remain steadfast in their desire for a real, viable democratic society. First and foremost is giving the press the freedom to report. This will only strengthen society and prepare people to enter the democratic world community, something that Egypt wants desperately.
With the one year anniversary of the declaration that the Egyptian government would no longer imprison journalists passed and no change in sight, it is time that Mubarak shows Egypt that he is committed to continuing the opening of the country that he promised. If he is able to guarantee freedom of the press, and continue the democratic process, then it is possible that Mubarak may surpass other contemporary Arab leaders. This is the time when Mubarak can make his legacy known across the Middle East and the world: the leader who brought freedom to the region.
I call on Egypt to continue to lead the way in the region. Show the world that promises will be kept and that freedom of the press is as important as improving the tourism sector. The United States has renewed the Patriot Act, a document that allows for the usurping of freedoms in a nation that claims to be the leader in freedom throughout the world. Egypt can show the world that they are not going to fall into the depths of deceit similar to America. Without the freedom of Malash and ending the prosecutions of journalists, Egypt will not be able to lead a region they have so often led in the past.