Despite its complex historical, institutional, and political changes, Egypt keeps a heavy legacy of state control over the public and the media landscape is no exception to this rule. Media institutions and legal frameworks have always been used to strengthen the authority of each administration in place. Over the years and regardless of its power, state-owned media has lost credibility and is now seen as a governmental mouthpiece, where wards of state employees are a source of daily financial losses. The adoption of the 2018 laws contributes to reinforcing the fact that political authorities choose the leaders of the media sector and shape it to their favors.
The print sector: the oldest but not the boldest
The print sector was born in the 18th century with the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798 - 1801). It clearly developed as a propaganda tool for the occupying powers and was not exempt of the censor’s guillotine. Controlled by the political and executive authority, it also suffered blatant interference. Although some initiatives were taken to push back the red lines of censorship with the creation of outlets such as Al Masry Al Youm (Hyperlink to MEDIA PROFILE), the emergence of the partisan press in the 1970’s and the democratization of the country in the 1980’s, the print outlets were very much linked to the power spheres leading to no editorial independence. Since the 19th century, three laws have been adopted to regulated the print sector: in 1881, 1996 and 2018. All of them held a repressive, draconian and freedom-destroying.
The broadcast sector: the official propaganda tool
TV and radio were not introduced with the same political ambitions. However, their popularity have soon entrapped them as they quickly became political propaganda tools. Radio stations emerged in the 1920’s to be the voice of different communities and were broadcasting all over the country, which created a space for freedom of opinion. TV to the contrary was officially established as a state-owned media in 1960 and quickly took over the radio’s popularity. As such, from the 1950’s, the Egyptian broadcast sector has mainly been state-controlled, a trend that is still in place today.
> 1881 - 1923: Control by Foreign Powers
In 1881, the Publications Law was issued, which most Egyptian press observers consider the worst law of publications in the history of the press. It granted authorities wide powers to sanction, confiscate and close print outlets. After the English occupation of Egypt (1882-1952) many newspapers were accused of supporting the Orabi revolution. According to the law, they had to close and journalists were imprisoned. This allowed foreign powers to impose total control over the press market in Egypt.
With the 1919 uprising leading to the creation of the Kingdom of Egypt and the independence from the United-Kingdom, a new constitution was adopted in 1923, creating a relative open political climate. Article 15 of the 1923 constitution states “The press shall be free within the limits of the law. Censorship of newspapers shall be prohibited. Intimidation, suspension or cancellation of papers via administrative means shall also be prohibited unless necessary for protecting social order”.
> 1923 – 1952: The Golden Age
After the 1919 revolution, the Egyptian media scene began a new era of brilliance characterized by pluralism and diversity. Community radios emerged as a response to a social need. Progressive elites in society pushed for a free and uncontrolled space in order to communicate with the public. ”New Egypt”, the first community radio station, was launched in Cairo in 1925. As there was no regulatory framework to define the operation of a radio station, it was considered at that time a completely free space to express opinion. Following this example, several local radio stations were launched throughout the country. In 1932, "Scambery Radio Station” and "Viola Radio Station" were established in Alexandria. Around that time, Egypt also counted 152 print outlets, ranging from artistic, cultural topics to defending women rights. This prosperous era of the Egyptian press led to the creation of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in 1941, chaired by journalist Mahmoud Abu El Fath, who was the editor-in-chief of Al Masry Newspaper and used to advised the political leader Saad Zaghloul on reaching out to foreign media to promote Egypt’s attempt to independence. But this experience was short lived.
In fact, the popularity of the radio stations exposed them to political exploitation. First used to broadcast nationalist and anti-British messages, they quickly became a platform asking for full independence. At the time, local radio stations represented one of the most important channels of communication with the public. This led the British commissioner to Egypt to issue a decree in 1932, rescinding his 1926 decision not to establish any government radio station. This decree criminalized the establishment of any private outlet. The British authorities therefore called on owners of the civil stations to pledge to close their stations immediately. Instead, a renewable contract was awarded to the British company Marconi for 10 years in July of the same year. In exchange for the contract to Marconi, the Egyptian government could censor the programs, but also broadcast official bulletins, statements and guidelines concerning the public. No advertising was allowed. The radio started broadcast in 1934 and was financed by a license fee on receivers of which 60% was passed on to Marconi to operate the station, while 40% remained with the government.
When the Marconi contract was supposed to end in 1942, both agreed to extend it for another five years. As political tensions raised between the Egyptian government and the British authority, the Egyptian government cancelled it in 1946. Since then, the radio has been under direct state control.
This reshuffle of the radio landscape also created the opportunity to initiate the state supervised censorship system characterizing Egyptian media landscape until the present day. In 1934, a committee composed of five members (3 appointed by the government and 2 by the company) was created to control all broadcast programs. The first to chair this Supreme Committee was Dr. Ali Pasha Ibrahim, an Egyptian surgeon and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine who became later the President of the Egyptian University.
> 1952 – 1995: Adjustments in Media Freedom
After King Farouk was overthrown with the 1952 revolution, a new era began for the media. The Free Officers’ movement – a group of Egyptian nationalist officers that instigated the revolution – considered the media as one of the most important tools to achieve its project and promote the policies of the regime. Political parties were abolished and the political life nationalized.
Following this trend, a presidential decree was issued on 24 May 1960 to nationalize all newspapers and magazines in Egypt. They were all submitted to the full management of the state, which chose its editors, and defined the media content.
The biggest and most important indication of the relapse of press freedom during that era was its disregard and misrepresentation during the reporting of the 1967 war. While most of the state media were publishing news about the victory of the Egyptian army, it was in fact defeated by Israel. This caused the loss of the credibility of these national media outlets among a large segment of the public for a long period of time.
When President Anwar Sadat took office in 1970 after Nasser’s death, he led Egypt to war against Israel for the next 3 years. In October 1974, he approved a document to lift censorship of newspapers except in military matters. He then called for the establishment of different political parties for the first time since 1952. Three were created and each founded a newspaper:
- The Egypt Arab Socialist Party (The National Democratic Party), led by Sadat, published Masr,
- The Liberal Socialist Party, led by Mostafa Kamel Morad, launched Al Ahrar,
- The National Progressive Unionist Party, led by Khaled Mohy El Din, a leader of the July revolution, launched Al-Ahali.
Moreover, before signing the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, President Sadat instructed journalist Anis Mansour, who was within his close circles, to establish the October magazine in 1974, that became the main platform for defending the policy of normalization of relations with Israel and accepting the peace treaty. Sadat is said to have personally reviewed its texts and made some editorial adjustments himself. Meanwhile, partisan press and a few columnists of the national newspapers could stand against the official policies of the Egyptian state towards the conflict with Israel.
But throughout the years, President Sadat suppressed the voices that he deemed could disturb the negotiations of the peace process with Israel. In September 1981, he ordered the imprisonment of most of the intellectual and religious leaders. Among them were journalists, including Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the director of Al Ahram (1959-1974) (hyperlink to MEDIA PROFILE). On the pretext of stirring sectarian strife, Sadat ordered to cancel the licenses of some newspapers and publications and to confiscate their assets. But his assassination stopped these procedures.
In 1981, President Mubarak took over the leadership of the country. His first move was the release of 31 prisoners jailed by Sadat. He also lifted censorship of newspapers and gave a fair amount of freedom to journalists to work. But this was, again, merely a happy interlude.
> 1995 – 2011: More Media Freedom
In 1995, Mubarak tried to pass Law No. 93, laying down penalties for libel and publication of so-called false information and provocative material – at least 5 years imprisonment. Considered as a step back by the vast majority of media leaders and national institutions, this very restrictive law intended to fully impose the domination of the executive authority over the media sector. Mubarak was forced not to ratify the law and passed a more flexible one in 1996.
A few years later, in the early 2000’s, President Mubarak's authority was forced to open the country even further towards more democratic freedoms. Newly created privately-owned outlets flourished, filling the void left by the long established state media.
In parallel, the emergence of the Internet – and social media in particular – put Mubarak's authority at stake of large segments of the young educated middle class, eventually leading to the January 2011 revolution.
> 2011 – now: A Brutal Way Back to Repression
Since 2011, the media impact on public opinion has increased steadily with the tremendous openness created by the revolution in society. After the 2011's revolution, many inside the state-owned press and media institutions demanded the reform of the state media – in vain.
With the revolution, the restoration of fundamental freedoms, and the unprecedented flow of investment aimed at establishing new media outlets, the media sector developed quickly. This thriving scene led many observers to state that media was a driving force in the society around the time. To them, it also played an important part in the 30 June protests, when the Egyptian armed forces deposed former President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.
Following the protests, Army Commander Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – the current President – removed Morsi from office in a coup d’Etat. Aware of the convening power of the media, his movement started a large-scale operation to redesign the Egyptian media landscape in order to ensure his control over it.
Over the last few years, the organizational structure of institutions entrusted with media regulation has been revisited but the armed forces retained their right to appoint their leadership. With the three new laws issued in 2018, the state’s domination of the whole media sector has secured itself a bright future.
Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (2011). "The Egyptian Radio And Television Union: A Study Of The State’s Media". Accessed on 11 October 2018.
. Al Jazeera (2011). History of Journalism (Documentary). Accessed on 11 October 2018