In a bold move, a number of Egypt's most prominent independent newspapers staged a one day media blackout yesterday in protest against President Mohamed Morsi’s latest constitutional decree that hands him nearly unrestricted powers, as well as the final draft of the constitution that was adopted last week by an Islamic-led panel.
The draft constitution has been criticised for not protecting the rights of women and minority groups, and many see it as restricting freedom of expression. While Article 45 protects freedom of expression, it does not state what legitimate limitations are permissible. Nor does it outline how it will balance against other articles, such as Article 31 (”The individual person may not be insulted”) and Article 44 (prohibiting “the insulting of prophets”). These articles will make reforming provisions within the existing penal code that criminalise “insult” and defamation, and that were frequently used to prosecute critics of the government, almost impossible. It is also important to note that criminal prosecutions on charges of “insulting the president” or “insulting the judiciary” have increased since Morsy took office.
Thirteen newspapers, including Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Tahrir, Al-Wafd, Al-Watan, Al-Youm Al-Sabae, Al-Fagr and Al-Ahrar, took part in the strike, while ONTV, Dream TV and CBC channels plan to temporarily cease broadcasting on Wednesday.
"In my opinion, this sends a very strong message to President Morsi, Egyptians and the whole world, letting everyone know that we are against the articles in the final draft of the constitution that limit press freedom and freedom of expression," said Ibrahim Mansour, Executive Chief Editor of El-Tahrir newspaper. "We are also protesting against the latest constitutional decree and the draft constitution that fail to fairly represent all Egyptians but is rather controlled by a small group of people. "
"While this is not the first time newspapers in Egypt have taken such action, it is the biggest and most widespread blackout in the history of the Egyptian media," said Gamal Fahmy, Secretary General of the Journalists' Syndicate. "In 2006 under Mubarak's regime, prison charges against journalists were commuted following a number of strikes, even though the numbers were a lot smaller, but now I don't expect a response from Morsi's government, which has proven to be closed-minded and oppressive."
Although state-owned newspapers did not suspend publication, journalists and reporters from Al-Ahram English and and its online Arabic portal issued statements in support of their colleagues' action.
"Ahram Online declares its full support for the strike action undertaken on Tuesday by a large number of Egyptian newspapers and TV stations in defence of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, civil liberties and the rule of law,” read a statement published on the website. “In view of our particular status as a web-based news outlet, however, we will maintain our updates throughout this crucial day of protest, not in contravention of the strike action, but in full solidarity with it. These decisions were consensually adopted by an all-staff meeting of Ahram Online, and in consultation with members of the board of the Press Syndicate and striking news media."
The Al-Ahram Arabic portal decided to go on partial strike on Monday in solidarity with the media strike. "We announce, as the young reporters of Ahram Arabic portal, that on top of the disgraceful rejection of journalism in the new draft constitution, and given how Judge Hossam El-Gheriany, the head of the Constituent Assembly, has mocked journalists, we have decided to go on strike Monday, 3 December, in solidarity with the right of the reader to receive a free press," the statement read.
However, many have called the move counter-productive as it comes at a crucial time in post-revolution Egypt.
"I knew about the strike beforehand, but I don't agree with it," said Mohamed Abdel Moneim, a Cairo-based newspaper kiosk owner, yesterday. "People didn't stop buying newspapers today, they only switched to buying state and Muslim Brotherhood owned ones."
"Al-Horreya Wel Adala (a Muslim Brotherhood owned newspaper) published a copy of the draft constitution today and the issue sold out in two hours. Newspapers that are usually not in-demand, such as the Islamic paper Al-Fatah, also sold out," he added.
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To watch Al-Masry Al-Youm video on Egypt media strike, click here.
Media strike poster reads in Arabic “a constitution that terminates rights and restrains freedoms. No to dictatorship”