Seeking Control Over Narrative, Egypt Puts Growing Pressure On Journalists

Seeking Control Over Narrative, Egypt Puts Growing Pressure On Journalists

9:38am Jul 13, 2015
Al-Jazeera English journalists Mohammed Fahmy, left, Baher Mohamed, center, and Peter Greste, right, appeared in a cage during their trial on terrorism-related charges in Cairo in March 2014. The journalists denied all charges. Greste, an Australian, was
Al-Jazeera English journalists Mohammed Fahmy, left, Baher Mohamed, center, and Peter Greste, right, appeared in a cage during their trial on terrorism-related charges in Cairo in March 2014. The journalists denied all charges. Greste, an Australian, was
Heba Elkholy/AP

On Saturday, a blast ripped through Cairo's Italian consulate, rocking the capital. And one of the first things Egyptian police did was briefly hold four foreign journalists — because they arrived too quickly.

It's not a surprise in the current atmosphere, where the foreign media is basically being painted as an enemy of the state in local press and in official statements.

At a recent press briefing at the Foreign Ministry, foreign journalists were given a one-page English guideline on how to describe "terrorists." So as not to tarnish the image of Islam, the ministry says we're not supposed to use terms like "fundamentalist," "jihadists," "Islamist," "Islamic State" or "ISIS."

They prefer some straightforward words, such as "extremist." But they also encourage descriptive language — like "slayers," "destroyers" and "eradicators."

Now, the law doesn't require we take these suggestions. But it is one indication of how much the state is trying to control the narrative at a time when Egypt faces more militant attacks and critics question whether the government can deal with the violence.

A military spokesman was quoted in the semi-official state newspaper Ahram as saying Egypt is fighting two wars, one a "media war" with foreign press who are purposely damaging the Egyptian people's morale — and the other a "ground war" with militants. And a group working under State Information Services, a government body that deals with the press, started emailing foreign reporters asking them to correct casualty figures because they were much higher than the official death toll after an attack by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Sinai earlier this month.

With all the accusations in the state-run press against foreign media as enemies of the state, reporting here can be hard work. I'm hesitant to pull out my microphone in the street because Egyptian citizens are encouraged to look for perceived suspicious activity — and turn you over to the police.

This week, a draft counterterrorism law is likely to pass. It includes a lot of broad and worrying language.

One article could easily gag the press. It says if you report something that contradicts information from an official body of the state, you face a minimum of two years in jail.

Egyptian journalists are up in arms about the new legislation. They've complained to the government. So now it looks like the minimum jail time may be replaced with hefty fines for journalists.

These aren't idle threats. The Committee to Protect Journalists says there are at least 18 journalists behind bars.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Yesterday, an explosion ripped through the Italian consulate in central Cairo. One of the first things Egyptian police did when they got to the site of the blast was to briefly question the foreign journalists covering the story. How was it, the police wanted to know, that they had arrived on the scene so quickly. With the recent increase in violence, there's an atmosphere of paranoia in Egypt, and the international media isn't being spared. NPR's Leila Fadel says foreign journalists in Cairo are basically being painted as one of the many enemies of the state.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At a recent press briefing at the foreign ministry, journalists were given a one-page English guideline on how to describe, quote, "terrorists." So as not to tarnish the image of Islam, the ministry says we're not supposed to use terms like fundamentalist, jihadist, Islamist, Islamic State or ISIS. They prefer some straightforward words such as extremist. But they also encourage descriptive language like slayers, destroyers and eradicator's. Now, the law doesn't require we take these suggestions, but it is one indication of how much the state is trying to control the narrative at a time when Egypt faces more militant attacks, and critics question whether the government can deal with a domestic insurgency. This month, a military spokesman was quoted saying Egypt is fighting two wars, one a media war with foreign press who are purposely damaging the Egyptian people's morale, the other a ground war with militants. And a group working under State Information Services started emailing foreign reporters asking them to correct casualty figures because they were much higher than the official death toll after an attack in the Sinai this month. And with all the trash-talking press against foreign media as enemies of the state, reporting here can be hard work. I'm hesitant to pull out my microphone in the street because Egyptian citizens are encouraged to look for perceived suspicious activity and turn you into the police. This week, a draft counterterrorism law is likely to pass. It includes a lot of broad and worrying language. One article could easily gag the press. It says if you report something that contradicts information from an official body of the state, you face a minimum of two years in jail. Egyptian journalists are up in arms about the new legislation and complained. So now it looks like the minimum jail time may be replaced with hefty fines for journalists. And these aren't idle threats. The committee to protect journalist says there are at least 18 journalists behind bars. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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