Egyptian journalists feel the pressure before election

An Egyptian journalist sits under a slogan supporting Ibrahim Issa outside the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo (18 October 2010) Journalists fear the government is sending a warning to them

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As parliamentary elections approach, journalists and human rights groups in Egypt believe that freedom of speech is coming under threat.

Ahead of the polls on 28 November, the authorities have closed a number of television channels, tightened regulations on the sending of news by text message, and forced operators of satellite dishes to reapply for their licences.

"I think they are jittery about the upcoming elections, which no doubt they have started to rig already long before election day," says Hisham Kassem, a journalist and former chairman of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.

"They are going to try to have minimum exposure to what is going to be scandalous elections. Not only rigging - I also imagine there is going to be a lot of violence."

"I imagine they don't want that on international and local media."

Off air

The concerns began following the sacking of Ibrahim Issa.

Ibrahim Issa (2007) Ibrahim Issa is a well-known critic of President Hosni Mubarak

He was the independent-minded editor of the opposition newspaper, al-Dustour.

He was let go following a takeover of the paper. Journalists feared a cosy deal with the government to remove one of its most outspoken opponents.

Staff held protests and a sit-in at the paper's offices.

Around the same time, a number of satellite TV channels were closed down. Most were religious and medical channels.

The government claimed they were broadcasting extremism, or selling quack remedies.

In a separate case, the cable TV channel Orbit was taken off air.

Ostensibly it was over an argument about unpaid fees, but the suspicion was that the move was really intended to silence Amir Adib, the presenter of a nightly chat show, Cairo Today.

Such chat shows are one of the few independent avenues for discussion of politics on television in Egypt.

Another chat show presenter, Mona al-Shazli, says she feels under pressure and fears being taken off air as well.

'Violations'

"What happened to the media has been taken totally out of context by some," argues Aley al-Din Hilal, media director of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Start Quote

Freedom of expression is a major ingredient of our political system - we protect it, we guarantee it”

End Quote Aley al-Din Hilal National Democratic Party

"It has nothing to do with 'political competition' or 'political pluralism' - it was targeted against the bulk of religious [and] one or two health [channels], which violated the licence according to which they operated."

But opponents argue that the government is sending a warning to the media.

Nader Gohar, who runs an independent satellite-dish company, says the government knows it cannot be seen openly repressing freedom of speech.

"The image of Egypt in the Western world is very important for the government. They have to keep it looking clean," he explains.

"That's why they won't close us down, but they want to control us. That way nobody can say they closed us down or they stopped you from working.

"They let you work, but when you work under threat, or feeling that any minute someone can come and raise a law in front of you, it is a bit difficult. We will work, but we will be cautious."

His operation, Cairo News Company, and other satellite dish operators, have had their licences cancelled, and been told to reapply under new, tighter restrictions.

Mr Gohar believes the government is particularly sensitive about the foreign news channels for whom he provides a service.

'Rehearsal'

All of this is denied by Mr Hilal.

Riot police stand outside an Egyptian government building in Cairo (25 October 2010) No-one expects any serious threat to the National Democratic Party

"Freedom of expression is a major ingredient of our political system - we protect it, we guarantee it. As long as you don't violate the law, you don't violate the licence according to which you are operating," he insists.

At the very least, the government has created an impression, and made independent journalists more cautious as they approach the election.

Not that anyone expects any serious threat to the control of the Egyptian parliament by the NDP.

But some observers also see this as a rehearsal for next year's presidential elections.

That is when President Hosni Mubarak will either run for re-election aged 83, or possibly give his support to a nominated successor.

It is a rare moment of uncertainty in Egypt's usually tightly controlled politics, so it would be no surprise if those in power were a little more nervous than usual.

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