Friday, October 07, 2011

Egyptian columnists leave their columns blank in protest

"I withhold my writing today to protest the barring, impounding of newspapers and the presence there of military censorship." These are the words written by three Al Tahrir columnists in protest against ongoing media censorship by the military authorities. Other than these few words, Belal Fadl, Omer Taher and Nagla Bedir chose to leave the rest of their regular columns blank.

What their protest highlights is the level of censorship still exercised by Egypt’s rulers, despite Mubarak’s ousting. This comes after authorities stopped the publication of a series of articles due to their critical stance. Last week an article which criticised the leadership of Egypt’s intelligence service under Omar Suleiman, a close confidant of the ousted president, was prevented from being published. Editor of the paper, Abdel-Halim Qandil, said intelligence service officers stopped the paper from being printed while the press was running, overseeing the destruction of 100,000 copies. Two other publications received similar treatment, one which claimed that Mubarak had instructed authorities to drop a case against an Israeli spy, and the other reporting that protestors wanted current military ruler Tantawi removed.

The mention of Tantawi is instructive, since the protest against censorship coincides with calls for the military to speed up the transition to a civilian government, with protest leaders and journalists criticising the military’s proposed timetable which would see them holding presidential elections at the end of 2012. This would mean the generals would stay in power for nearly two years instead of six months as had been proposed initially. The Al Tahrir columnists are protesting precisely because they want such a transition to bring genuine change, and in particular a new way of dealing with the press. As Belal Fadl, one of the columnists put it, censorship is no longer the way to deal with the press, "it is no longer acceptable. The solution is to correct mistakes by allowing more freedom and to raise the professional standard of journalists,". "Our protest does not reflect a desire to have absolute freedom for the press without any controls."

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