Two contrasting stories caught the eye yesterday. Firstly, the announcement that media outlets will no longer need to obtain approval from the security services before releasing publications. On the face of things, this is a positive step forward, and one that is consistent with the apparent increase in press freedom that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak. However, as with so much of of Egyptian politics, there is more to this announcement than meets the eye. As proven by the uncompromising treatment of Maikel Nabil Sanad, a young blogger who dared to publicly criticise the military, clear red lines still separate subjects that can be discussed with relative freedom and those that must not be broached under any circumstances:
Al-Ahram said the military tribunal found Maikel Nabil Sanad, 26, guilty of “insulting the military” and “disturbing public security” because of a blog entry titled, “The army and the people were never one hand.”
Nabil’s blog went on to denounce the military’s use of detentions and courts-martial to punish critics and democracy advocates.
The military tribunal handed down the ruling late Sunday after Nabil’s attorneys had departed, a rights group said. Nabil was immediately remanded to prison.
That Sanad’s arrest should come so soon after the army crackdown in Tahrir Square is no surprise. As Steven Cook has explained over at CFR, the military are engaged in a struggle for ‘competing legitimacy’ with activists who seek to defend the legacy of their revolution. It seems the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) have now put the threat of force definitively back on the table in an effort to demonstrate that they are prepared to use all the means available to them to defend the authority of the state. Within this context, Sanad’s explicit challenge to the authority of the armed forces will have been treated as a form of dissent that was not just inconvenient but intolerable.
For journalists, the revolution’s legacy has been far from uniform. During the 18 days of demonstrations, the regime sought first to control the media narrative and, when this strategy failed, then to shut off all communications, pulling the plug on the internet, arresting journalists and ransacking Al Jazeera’s Cairo office.
In the months since Mubarak’s fall, there have certainly been cosmetic improvements to press freedom. Both independent and state media have been able to criticise President Mubarak’s time in office and the corruption of figures such as Ahmed Ezz has also come under sustained attack in the print press. Furthermore, the beginning of April saw the announcement of a new union for independent journalists, the Egyptian Association of Publishers of Independent Newspapers, a grouping that will: “defend the interests of the printed press industry, and to liberate it from all forms of monopoly and the set of legal restrictions on freedoms of expression and publishing.”
However, as Sanad’s arrest shows, there remain strict red lines relating to what can and cannot be criticised. There also remains a clear difference between those who use blogs to convey their message and those who still operate through traditional media channels. A recent report revealed that Egypt remains one of the most repressive countries in the world for bloggers, a fact which is unsurprising. Unlike newspaper journalism, a medium for which there tends to be direct accountability, online blogging can take place behind the shield on anonymity. Operating outside the constraints of traditional publications – there is no need, for example, for editorial oversight – blogs represent a greater unknown, and by extension, a greater threat to the authority of the SCAF. The experience of the past few years has taught political elites that the internet can be used to transmit uncomfortable truths around the world: the before and after photos of Khaled Said that circulated on Youtube and blogging sites served as an early warning of this, as the young man’s family and friends used the internet to offer a direct rebuttal to police claims that he had died after swallowing a bag of narcotics. Online ‘citizen journalism’ was of course crucial throughout the revolution, as activists sent photos and videos of the security crackdown to the outside world, often evading complicated state-enforced obstacles in the process.
In addition, bloggers continue to arouse state suspicion as they routinely break cultural and religious taboos: discussing the social and political malaise afflicting the Egypt and the wider region, exploring sexual identities and challenging the dominant institutions of religion, state and family. In an environment where authorities are struggling to reassert themselves over a restive population, such developments will continue to be monitered closely. This battle has a long way to run yet.