President Morsi promises to stop detaining journalists

After rising concern about press freedom in Egypt, Morsi steps in – but is it a cynical gesture?

BY Louisa Loveluck LAST UPDATED AT 15:44 ON Fri 24 Aug 2012

EGYPT’S President Mohamed Morsi has responded to growing criticism that his government is stifling press freedom by announcing that he will use his legislative powers to prohibit the detention of journalists. Some observers, however, read this as a cynical move to avert large street protests.

Concerns about press freedom have mounted in recent weeks following the detention or suspension of a number of journalists who have criticised Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Earlier this month, copies of the privately-owned daily al-Dostour newspaper were confiscated from the newspaper's offices after a front-page editorial called Morsi a "fascist" and asked the army to "defend the civil state".

The paper’s editor Islam Afifi was taken into custody in Cairo’s Torah prison pending a court hearing. It is now understood that the public prosecutor has ordered Afifi’s release in light of Morsi’s announcement.

Other critics have faced similar experiences. Local news outlets report that the state-owned al-Akhbar newspaper, has reduced the space allocated to its “Free Opinions” columns, following the censorship of three articles in a week. Firebrand talkshow host Tawfiq Okasha is also being investigated, charged with inciting Morsi’s murder live on air, and supporting a military coup.

Morsi’s move to stop the detention of journalists has drawn tentative praise from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "We welcome [the] decision to ban pre-trial detention but urge thorough reform that repeals the archaic laws criminalising the reporting of news and the expression of opinion," said CPJ executive director Joel Simon. "Authorities must halt an alarming rise in repression, and assaults against journalists."

Others, however, have interpreted Morsi’s announcement as a cynical attempt to halt a street protest today against his rule. Political analyst Mustapha Al-Sayyid says: "Morsi's decision does not cancel the fierce attacks on the media that were led by Brotherhood members and its timing is only a last-minute attempt to cancel Friday's demonstrations that journalists and novelists will participate in".

Last month, Egypt’s upper chamber of parliament announced the appointment of (largely Islamist) new editors, provoking a storm of protest among journalists. Perceptions abound that these individuals are largely yes-men – a system of appointments that was well-established under Hosni Mubarak.
 
Egypt’s penal code remains weighted against those who criticse the powers-that-be. ‘Insulting the president’ is defined as a criminal act. The loosely defined act of ‘incitement’ is also a punishable offence.

After an initial period of openness, Egypt has seen the space for dissent squeezed under a military junta and now an Islamist president. A press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders says Egypt fell 39 places during the past year. · 

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