They say seeing is believing, but when it comes to the trial of Egypt’s Al-Dostour editor Ibrahim Eissa’s, seeing elicits everything from downright incredulity to utter disbelief.
Known as the “president’s health case, a court in March upheld the prosecution’s claims that articles published in Al-Dostour in August 2007, which alleged that Egypt’s President Mubarak is in ill health, had a detrimental effect on the country’s economy.
Eissa was accused of “publishing false information of a nature to disturb public order or security, which many believe are trumped up charges to settle political scores with one of the ruling regime’s most corrosive critics.
The reason for my utter disbelief as I attended Sunday’s defense hearing, however, stemmed from a single phenomenon: a strange phenomenon who goes by the name Samir El-Sheshtawy.
In early June, Daily News Egypt had reported that El-Sheshtawy – a lawyer and member of the ruling National Democratic Party, who tried in vain to bring a civil claim against Eissa – was in court with his two little boys, and a private cameraman who filmed him before, during and after the court hearing.
In the previous appeal hearing he had requested that his children be allowed to testify in support of his claim that the children had been “disturbed by the articles published in Al-Dostour.
At one point he even demanded that Eissa print an apology to Mubarak and his family; which brings us back to elements of disbelief in this comedy of errors I witnessed in court that day.
El-Sheshtawy’s opening remarks as a complainant were indeed so farcical, I was almost driven to tears over the tragic fact that an great thinker like lawyer Mohamed Selim El-Awwa (one of Eissa’s eight-strong defense team) would find himself standing up against this unusual creature whose every word, gesture and argument defies both logic and sanity – as if it wasn’t bad enough that in this day and age a journalist faces imprisonment and a huge fine for publishing what the whole world would classify as fair comment.
El-Sheshtawy spared no synonyms as he explained with wild gesticulations, how Eissa’s editorials had “disturbed, perturbed, agitated, troubled and distressed him; and how he was driven by “boundless patriotism and “anxiety over the future of this country to press charges against “the accused in an act which just so happened to coincide with the seven-hour state security interrogation to which “the accused was subjected on the very same day.
In its summation, the defense cited procedural errors as well as contested the constitutionality of Penal Code article 188 under which Eissa’s being tried, which, they argued, contradicts the overriding principles of freedom of expression in the Egyptian constitution and violates provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Egypt is signatory.
The verdict will be announced on Sunday, July 13.
To add insult to injury, last Wednesday the local press exposed another punch in the face of media freedom.
An alleged draft law penned by the Ministry of Information to be discussed in the next PA session, not only threatens to tighten state control over audio and visual transmission, including online platforms, but will also hand over the reigns of “regulation to the (anachronistic) Minister of Information who will reportedly head a monitoring body called the “National Authority for the Regulation of Audio and Radio Transmission.
With the express purpose of gate-keeping, the authority’s mission is to “protect the welfare of the public , “ensure the retention of traditions and peace in society , and safeguard “audience’s right to receive accurate information and protect “social harmony, national unity, nationalism, public order and public morals.
The draft law comes on the heels of a controversial Arab League broadcast charter meant to ensure that satellite channels broadcasting from member state jurisdictions do not “negatively affect social peace, national unity, public order, and public morals or “defame leaders, or national and religious symbols [of other Arab states].
With images of a Pravda-style propaganda machine in mind, one can’t help questioning both the validity of instituting such policies and the capability of doing so in the communication age.
Policing the internet super-highway, where any 12-year-old can shoot a video and upload it for the world to see at practically no cost, and where millions use chat rooms, social networking forums and personal blogs to publish their ideas and engage in online discussions, is more than just a Herculean task.
It’s a futile endeavor which can only stoke further resentment from the Arab masses towards their governments and drive dissenting voices underground.
The debate over regulation versus state control is one that challenges even the most open media landscapes. The US’s Federal Communications Commission, for instance, has been in place since 1934 and was complemented by the 1996 Telecommunications Act to stay abreast of the communications revolution. Yet it still grapples with cases which crop up in light of fast-changing technology.
To off-set regulation policies, which some might argue are just as prohibitive in the West as they are in our part of the world, most democratic states have also endorsed a Freedom on Information Act which guarantees citizens’ right to access public information.
This gives everyone the right to probe everything from government spending to classified documents about former heads of state, placing the burden on the government – not the public – to substantiate why information may not be released.
To impose such stringent regulations at this transitional phase in Egypt’s media, without off-setting legitimate demands for regulation with guarantees of open access to information, can be described as nothing short of a bare-faced stab at gagging the media.
Dumbing down satellite programming will only fling the doors wide open to the tabloidization of audio-visual content and hence herald in the dark ages of infotainment.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.