Around 200 Egyptian journalists have rejected a recent policy declaration by newspaper editors pledging near-blind support to the state and banning criticism of the police, army and judiciary in their publications.
In a statement posted on social media networks today, the journalists said fighting terrorism was both a duty and an honour but has nothing to do with the “voluntary surrender” of the freedom of expression.
“Standing up to terrorism with a shackled media and sealed lips means offering the nation to extremism as an easy prey and turning public opinion into a blind creature unaware of the direction from which it is being hit or how to deal with it,” the statement said.
Security officials confirmed the authenticity of the statement, saying the journalists who signed it represented the full spectrum of ideologies, from Islamist to leftist and secularist.
Last week’s statement by editors pledging support to the government came in response to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s call on Egyptians to rally behind him and his government in the face of terrorism following the killing by suspected Islamic militants of 30 soldiers, the deadliest attack on the Egyptian army in decades.
The dispute between the journalists and their editors is the latest episode in Egypt’s struggle between authorities and their loyalist media who give security precedence over nearly all else and a small but vocal pro-democracy camp made up mostly of secular and leftist youth groups.
The dispute has arisen from the recent erosion of many of the freedoms Egyptians won when they rose up against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. At the top of that list is the freedom to protest – a law adopted late last year criminalises any street demonstration without prior police permission.
Dozens of activists, some as young as 20, have been tried, convicted and sentenced to jail for organising or taking part in peaceful demonstrations since the law was enforced in November.
A much harsher crackdown targets members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group that has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the state. Authorities have killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands since the military ouster in July 2013 of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
Mr El-Sissi, who took office in June after a landslide election victory the previous month, says the law mirrors similar regulations in the West and is meant to restore law and order in a country mired in turmoil since 2011. Mr El-Sissi led the ouster of Mr Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, amid street demonstrations by millions demanding his removal.
The newspaper editors’ policy declaration has caused an uproar among pro-democracy activists and appeared to signal a throwback to Mubarak’s days or the rule of the charismatic but authoritarian Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.
It said editors would take measures to halt what it called the “infiltration by elements supporting terrorism” in their publications.
Significantly, the editors also stated their “rejection” of what they called attempts to cast doubt on state institutions, basic policy choices and criticism of the army, police or judiciary that “may reflect negatively on their performance”.
Other media have taken similar stands in public, with one private TV channel saying it intended to bar certain guests from its political programmes on charges of being “rumour mongers” – parlance for government critics.
Several talk show hosts have meanwhile either been briefly taken off the air in the middle of their programmes or prevented altogether from hosting their shows.