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The politics of silence

February 21, 2013

When, by August 2011, it looked as if the uprising against him was not going to quell anytime soon, Bashar Assad tried to control the narrative in Syria. It came in the guise of reform, when he approved a new media law. On paper, it stated that the state guarantees freedom of the press and right to access information—but it also made clear journalists could not discuss anything affecting ‘national unity and national security’.

The problem, of course, was that ‘national security’ was a vague term that served to sideline protestors as ‘terrorists’ harming the state. President Assad continues this rhetoric even now: “We didn’t launch the war…You have terrorists coming with very sophisticated armaments…killing people, destroying infrastructure, destroying public places, everything.”

Meanwhile, voices that could legitimately challenge this narrative were weeded out. Even after the new media law was signed, journalists continued to be imprisoned or killed. Committee to Protect Journalists says Syria was the most dangerous place for journalists in 2012. Today, both the regime and the opposition are guilty of targeting the media.

But back in August, and today, Assad’s feeble attempts to reclaim legitimacy were recognized as a tactic to tar the opposition’s image. It’s almost flabbergasting then why, just south of Syria, Egypt has waged a similar war against the media.

After Mubarak, Egypt enjoyed a brief period in which news outlets could criticize and poke fun at state heads. Since late last year, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has been targeting journalists, reprimanding them and investigating them for criticizing the president. One of the more famous cases was of TV satirist Bassem Youssef who was accused of “insulting the president”. The situation has worsened as an increasingly overpowering (and nervous) MB, tries to control the media, and as the economic situation spirals.

Last Sunday, Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of the English-language Al-Ahram Online, was forced to leave by supervisors appointed by the Muslim Brotherhood [as he suggests on his Facebook page]. A secular Christian, Mr Shukrallah arguably provided a critical voice to the political discourse. Journalists have been put on trial and prosecuted as criminal cases for insulting the Muslim Brotherhood and the president. Late last year, Salafi Islamists burnt down media headquarters of Al-Wafd, the newspaper of the Wafd opposition party, without facing repercussions.

Meanwhile, a downward-spiraling economy has put relatively liberal media in danger. After stating that it would close down Egypt Independent, an English-language weekly, due to cost pressures, the parent company Al-Masry Al-Youm said on Monday that it is reversing its decision and keep the newspaper open. But it is hardly out of danger.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood’s heavy hand can’t be blamed for the economic forces threatening existence of a balanced media landscape, the two trends leaves a rather limited space in which the discourse filling it sounds eerily familiar:

Mohamed Beltagy, secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Al-Monitor on why he asked Mr Morsi to impose state of emergency in Port Said: “The violence in Port Said led to dozens of deaths. This is something unusual and new, and proves the use of excessive violence. An immediate intervention to confront the ‘thugs’ by all legitimate means was necessary.”

President Morsi should’ve learned by now that silencing voices, even if they are of ‘thugs’, is not a sustainable legacy.

 

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