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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1994, page 49

Cairo Communiqué

Journalists in Egypt Fear Return to "Bad Old Days" of Strict Censorship

By James J. Napoli

English-reading Cairenes at the beginning of November could pick up at any newsstand a copy of Cairo Today magazine with a grim cover photo of barbed wire strung around the words "Human Rights: The Egyptian Debate."

But, within a few days, the November 1993 issue of Cairo Today that appeared on the shelf had a picture of modernist Mahmoud Mukhat's sculpture of a woman, "Secret Keeper," on the cover. Inside, replacing the human rights story, was an article on modern art in Egypt.

The disappearance of the magazine's human rights issue, now a collector's item, became one of the month's worst kept secrets in Cairo. It provided just one more instance to prompt foreign journalists from London to Philadelphia to race around town gathering information for news stories about the revival of censorship in Egypt.

Privately, Egyptians in the media direly muttered about a return to the bad old days of journalist arrests and general bullying of the press that had been endemic under presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. But it is far more likely that the Cairo Today fiasco was just another example of the confusion and ineptitude that characterize media policy in Egypt.

Not yet willing to give up on trying to control information, despite its futility in the age of global communications, of ficials periodically crack down. Though the crackdowns often have unforeseen and counterproductive results, the government has attempted in recent months to extend controls over the mainstream Arabic, as well as the English-language, press.

Censors had already gone through the Cairo Today human rights story, cutting a few passages offensive to state security forces before publication, according to magazine sources. But they had not seen the photos of a public prosecutor and a security guard, categories that are banned for the personal security of the government personnel involved, though this was not known to the magazine's editors.

At any rate, by the time the magazine was withdrawn”“"voluntarily," according to some accounts”“hundreds of copies were already in circulation, the picture was available anyway and Egypt had the additional onus of negative foreign publicity about its botched efforts at media control.

Another English-language publication, the weekly Middle East Times, also has had several issues banned recently.

Nicholas Pelham, the paper's editor, told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that among the offending stories was an article on human rights in which an alleged car thief was reported to have been injected with human excrement by police. Another offensive story was on government efforts to remove politics from the classroom.

Pelham said the paper, which is backed by the Unification Church (the "Moonies") and only recently moved its main news operation from Athens to Cairo, now submits sensitive articles in advance to the appropriate ministries, usually the Ministry of Information or Defense.

Sometimes the stories are held up indefinitely, Pelham said. The paper was told not to run a word on the Cairo Today story, though, of course, it was already widely known.

Pelham said he was told by Information Ministry of ficials that the paper, which has a relatively small circulation, has taken on unusual importance because cutbacks in funding for foreign bureaus mean that foreign journalists will depend more on the Middle East Times as a source.

They want the Times to present more positive stories, presumably to improve Egypt's image abroad and help bring back the tourist industry, which has suffered severely in the wake of violence by religious extremists, he said.

In fact, the number of foreign journalists in Cairo has not been decreasing. If membership in the Cairo Foreign Press Association is any indication, the number of foreign journalists has increased significantly in the past year.

The government's Egyptian Foreign Press Center also has been tightening up on the number of press cards it issues to anyone not designated as a staff correspondent, such as "stringers" and free-lancers.

But the cards are mostly valued because they provide the bearer with access to monthly duty-free liquor allotments. Reporting continues with or without them.

Efforts to control information have not been limited to the foreign-language press, however. The opposition press got a jolt in October”“the same month that President Hosni Mubarak "won" a third, six-year term in office”“when the vice president of the Islamist-oriented Labor Party, Helmi Murad, and two journalists on the party newspaper al-Shaub were arrested because of articles critical of Mubarak they had printed. The party secretary-general, Adel Hussein, and the paper's chief editor, Magdi Hussein, were questioned.

A Firestorm of Criticism

These moves, even against a paper notorious for reckless and irresponsible reporting, created a firestorm of criticism in the press, among both government and opposition newspapers. Even the Press Syndicate, headed by Ibrahim Nafie, chairman of al-Ahram Organization and chief editor of al-Ahram newspaper, expressed its "grave concern" at this apparent violation of press guarantees.

The usually comatose Syndicate also reacted vehemently when legislation was proposed after the referendum”“exactly by whom is still not clear”“that would have given the government still more control over the Syndicate membership.

The proposal would have tightened admission to membership in the Syndicate and made it tougher for free-lancers to write for Egyptian publications. The organization also would have been stacked with thousands of radio and television workers, from secretaries to tea boys, who would have assured that the government prevailed in sensitive votes. And it would have prescribed a range of punishments for journalists who attacked government officials or who violated "honor."

After an outpouring of outrage from Syndicate members, Mubarak distanced himself from any involvement with it”“as he did after a similar reaction to an earlier proposal to toughen libel laws.

"For the first time in my life," said one journalist who had just attended a clamorous meeting of Syndicate members at which the proposal was denounced, "I was proud to be a member of the Syndicate.''

If there is to be a return to the bad old days of rigid press controls, the press may not go quietly.