Pundits divided over future of private media after recent crackdown

The recent crackdown on privately-owned Egyptian media has left many observers perplexed. The move is raising questions over whether the newly-imposed constraints are temporary measures–only aimed at silencing the media during the upcoming elections–or if they represent a radical shift in the government’s attitude towards independent media.

“To what extent is the regime taking it further? Is it just for the elections or is it more than that? Is the regime considering a new way of running the country?” questioned prominent writer and a history professor at Helwan University Sherif Younes.

“We can only make speculations because the main players responsible for these acts are secretive and unaccountable," he added. "We are ruled by a secret regime.”

The government launched the clampdown with the ban of the popular news talk show “al-Qahera al-Youm” last month. On the heels of the show's closing, Ibrahim Eissa, one of the staunchest critics of the ruling regime, was sacked from his position as editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Dostour. His dismissal attracted a deluge of media attention, including fears that the Egyptian media landscape may lose a newspaper known for its inflammatory criticism of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Dina Shehata, a political expert with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, believes these developments are aimed at more than just covering up expected electoral violations in the parliamentary poll slated for November. They signal the kickoff of a series of tougher restrictions that TV channels and newspapers will face from now until the presidential race set for fall 2011, Shehata predicts.

“They [the NDP] believe the independent media are their primary enemy,” said Shehata. “You can sense that in the NDP leaders’ discourse. They keep saying that the government is making achievements but the media do not make people sense them.”

The NDP is expected to field candidates for each of the 508 parliamentary seats set for contest. Alike 2005, this year's poll will feature at least 150 candidacies from the nation’s strongest and largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. A verbal war already wages between the ruling party and the banned-but-tolerated Islamist group.  For many observers, this discursive standoff is expected to be the prelude to a violent and rigged electoral race.

“The 2010 elections will be a continuation of the second and third phases of the 2005 poll,” said Gamal Heshmat, member of the Musim Brotherhood’s Shura Council told Al-Masry Al-Youm, in reference to the electoral violence and fraud that pervaded the 2005 elections. Clashes over the polling claimed at least 13 lives.

“The NDP wants to deprive any force from meeting the eligibility requirements necessary to field a presidential candidate, ” he added.

As dictated by the 2007 constitutional amendments, an independent presidential hopeful has to garner the support of at least 250 elected members of the parliament’s lower and upper houses as well as municipal councils. Reaching such a number is next to impossible for a non-NDP candidate. The NDP continues to boast a sweeping majority in all legislative bodies.

In recent months, the independent media has been discussing the murky future of political succession as President Mubarak remains reluctant to appoint a vice-president despite reports of ill-heath. In the meantime, the private press has exposed reports of an alleged rift within the ruling regime over succession. 

To Shehata, the cost of cracking down further on these private outlets would be nominal. “If a crackdown happens, are there any players that could get mobilized against it in a way that would pose a threat to the regime?” questioned Shehata rhetorically. “Only the US could voice criticism but the regime will not even listen to that unless it gets translated into actives measures against the government that could affect the aid for example.”

And using aid to deter the Egyptian government from tightening its grip on democratic institutions does not seem to be on the US government agenda. Last week, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) decided to increase its aid allocation for Egypt by 20 percent–to US$250 million.

The aid increase decision coincided with a Ministry of Communications announcement to impose restrictions on text messaging use in disseminating cellphone news alerts. And to add fuel to the fire, the Ministry of Information requested nine channels relocate their real-time coverage units to permanent offices at the Egyptian Media Production City as a precondition for receiving approval to broadcast material to or from Egypt. The move to this location, situated in the western outskirts of Cairo, is expected to prevent satellite channels from airing live broadcasts of protests and demonstrations that take place in different spots nationwide.

Moreover, the privately-owned On TV received a notice to stop airing its news ticker. And, in yet another incident, four religious satellite channels were closed down for allegedly inciting sectarian tension last week.

Unlike most analysts, Samer Soliman, a political scientist with the American University in Cairo contended that these consecutive incidents might not be connected and do not inherently indicate the introduction of a larger policy aimed at debilitating the private media.

“I believe the regime managed to adapt with the space it has granted to the media," said Soliman. "It has developed more sophisticated tools to control the media.”  The incendiary content of independent papers or TV shows is not enough to prompt any major action on the government’s part, he added.

“It is true that the media constitute a challenge to the regime but they cannot mobilize the people," said Soliman. "The media do not necessarily lead to any action on the street.”

For the last ten years, the media market has witnessed a boom in privately-owned newspapers and satellite channels. Few of these outlets have developed a solid agenda of political coverage that broaches sensitive topics, including the flaws of the Mubarak regime.

Yet, a complete closure of such outlets remains inconceivable, according to Helwan University's Younes.

“Instead, they will keep targeting particular shows or particular channels from one time to another,” he said. “Closing down the private media is not in the regime’s best interest. The regime needs them to serve as a safety valve whereby people could vent their grievances.”

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