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Egypt's journalists struggle under Mubarak-era laws

By Ben Gilbert, for NBC News

CAIRO – A week before Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree vastly expanding his powers and prohibiting judicial review of his decisions, an Egyptian satellite TV station, famous for helping re-energize the Egyptian uprising in February 2011, was forced off the air.

(Morsi, on Saturday, scaled back the decree, but this week's vote on a new constitution will go ahead as planned.)

The station, Dream TV, rose to international prominence after broadcasting an interview with former Google executive and Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim -- an interview that re-inspired the protest movement that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. 

On Nov. 15, the Egyptian government-run satellite company and broadcast authority cut the signal.  The minister of information, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement that the location of Dream TV’s studios violated the law because the studios are not in the Cairo suburb designated for live broadcasts.

Dream TV journalists disagree. They say the closure was a result of the station's criticism of Morsi’s government. “The decision is not legal but political,” Dream TV anchor Wael Al-Ibrashy was reported as saying on air before the transmission was cut. “The channel is being punished for a political stance.”

NBC tried to contact Information Minister Salah Abdel Maqsoud for comment but has not received a response. 

As protests continued, President Mohammed Morsi rescinded a controversial decree he issued weeks ago, assuming control of the judiciary. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Dream TV has since gone back on the air temporarily; it may be shut down again pending a court ruling.

The station’s struggle is just one of hundreds of battles being waged in the fight for an independent Egyptian media. 

Journalists in Egypt face around 30 Mubarak-era laws in the criminal code meant to muzzle the media, with the potential to punish journalists with hefty fines and years in jail. 

Hundreds of complaints
So far this year, Egyptian judges have filed at least 900 formal complaints against television channels and journalists, according to the English-language Al Ahram Online

“The laws haven’t changed,” said Cairo-based Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef. “The penal code criminalizes everything from insulting the president to insulting public institutions to insulting a foreign king.”

In early December, 11 Egyptian newspapers participated in a “news blackout” to protest Morsi’s decree and potential constitutional restrictions on journalists.

Despite the government’s arrest and prosecution of journalists, the state’s actions have not had a chilling effect on speech. Egyptians can speak their minds more than at any time in most people’s memory, and there are dozens of new independent TV channels and newspapers.

“People are hungry for politics, and there’s a lot of new media,“ said Said Sadek , an Egyptian political sociologist. “It’s difficult today to restrict ideas.”  

Egypt's Morsi annuls move that gave him special powers

Even under Mubarak’s dictatorship, independent, privately owned media, like Dream TV, gave a platform to opposition and human rights groups -- within limits.

By contrast, the state-owned newspapers and TV stations were essentially Mubarak’s propaganda mouthpieces.

Although Egyptians favor independent, privately owned newspapers to the state-owned press, the state-owned, nationally broadcast TV channels are still very powerful. They are directly controlled by the government’s Ministry of Information.  

Many journalists and free-speech advocates hoped that when Morsi took office and ended military rule in August, he would abolish the country’s Byzantine press rules and dismantle the Ministry of Information.

Head of state TV quits
Instead, Morsi appointed Maqsoud, the fellow Muslim Brotherhood member, to run the ministry. Analyst Elijah Zerwan says state media’s coverage is more balanced than under Mubarak, but it still favors those in charge, as evidenced by recent coverage of the anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square and around Egypt.

“They are interviewing people in the square and showing protests, but also featuring a lot of guests from the Brotherhood,” Zerwan said.  “So they seem to be struggling with it.”

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That struggle appears to have pushed the head of state TV over the edge.  On Thursday Dec. 6, he submitted his resignation.

“I resigned in protest at the general administration of this regime,” former state TV head Essam Al-Amir said, as reported by the English-language Daily News Egypt.  “It is not only about the Egyptian state media. The entire political situation has pushed me to quit.”

Al-Amir said the government had requested that state TV programming include more voices that presented the government’s view, the Daily News reported. 

ANALYSIS: Egyptians warn Morsi is no friend of US

Journalist Rania Al Malky worries that Morsi’s government will take Egyptian media backward.   

"There is this fear that it's going to be a return to how it was before, with the people in power controlling the message and framing the messages that are coming out of the national press,” she said.

Malky and other journalists fear Egypt’s new draft constitution enshrines the country’s restrictive press laws, notably by curbs on freedom of expression. At press time, the vote on the draft is scheduled for Dec. 15.

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