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Press Freedom Dwindles In Egypt


I'm Scott Simon. Egypt remains a nation in shock after a deadly militant attack on the army last week. There's been a surge in nationalism and a heralding of what's called Egypt's war on terror as a result of that attack and others on Egypt's security forces. Now for the press, that means the already dwindling space for freedom of speech has been pretty much closed. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At 10 p.m., Wael El Ebrashy's show airs live on a local private channel.


WAEL EL EBRASHY: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: It's a bit of a tabloid talk show that sometimes takes on social issues, but it's never too critical of the state and is certainly anti-Islamist. Guests fight, El Ebrashy yells, but on October 19 as El Ebrashy began his show and turned to the topic of corruption in the health and education ministries, the lights went out. His channel told him it was a technical problem, but El Ebrashy quickly realized he'd been pulled off the air after pressure from the government.

EL EBRASHY: (Through translator) Under Hosni Mubarak, I was taken to court. Under the Muslim Brotherhood I was threatened, but this is the first time my broadcast was cut live on air. This is like slashing the arteries of freedom.

FADEL: For five days, he refused to do his nightly show until he was given guarantees by the prime minister and other members of the government that this would not happen again.

EL EBRASHY: (Through translator) I told them the media is not some hook they can hang their failures on. We are not responsible for the failure of ministries.

FADEL: El Ebrashy's back on air now, and so far, he hasn't spoken to viewers about why he was pulled off. It's not the time, he says, and that seems to be the rallying cry of the media these days when it comes to criticism. Now is not the time.

This week, 17 newspaper editors of both private and state newspapers signed a statement that worried press advocates. They vowed not to insult the army, police or judiciary and not to undermine the state. One of the editors who signed the statement is Emad el-Din, editor in chief of Shorouk newspaper. He walks us through the bustling newsroom - there's a sports section, copy editors, news reporters. His paper is considered one of the most independent in Egypt. I ask why he'd sign a statement that basically calls for self-censorship. He says it doesn't.

EMAD EL-DIN: (Through translator) We wanted to deliver a message to the citizens that the media is with the state in facing terrorism.

FADEL: He says his newspaper will continue to write critical stories, but some things are just red lines now.

EL-DIN: (Through translator) In Egypt, unlike the U.S. or Europe, it's illegal to write about the armed forces without permission. And if they wanted to try someone for publishing something about the armed forces without permission, they would.

FADEL: He says Egypt is in a moment of heightened nationalism, like the United States was post-9/11. And the climate doesn't allow for certain criticism. Adel Iskander teaches Global Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The recent statement, he says, just formalizes what's been going on for nearly a year - press that won't criticize the government.

ADEL ISKANDER: Some of it is a product of paranoia and fear of the government and the regime clamping down, but a lot of it is actually a product of groupthink, where journalists and reporters are caught up in the frenzy of trying to save Egypt from the edge of the abyss.

FADEL: That, he says, has a chilling effect on the press. And with both private and public media organizations vowing not to criticize the army, the police and the judiciary, major government decisions are passing unquestioned. The president recently decreed a law that expands military jurisdiction to allow for more civilians to be tried in military tribunals. And in a drastic security move, the government is evicting hundreds of families in Northern Sinai and plans to raze their homes. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.