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The Press under Hosni Mubarak

Mubarak took over as president of Egypt in 1981, immediately after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and ruled the country until a large protest movement forced him from power in 2011. Mubarak had inherited a fairly repressive and restrictive press structure from his predecessors, Sadat (1970-1981) and Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970).14 Some occasional criticisms of the government notwithstanding, state-run media dominated the news system and remained loyal to Mubarak and the government line.15 The independent press, meanwhile, while significantly freer than the state-run press, also faced restrictions.

The Mubarak regime exerted its powerful control over state-run media outlets through policies that allowed the government to directly appoint editors.16 The regime also used a broadly repressive legal umbrella—which included the Press Law, the Emergency Law, the 1971 constitution, and the penal code—to effectively control press output. For example, the Press Law stipulated prison sentences for journalists who published “false news,” and granted the president the right to censor news content that threatened “public safety and national security.”17 The Emergency Law gave the government the right to censor “newspapers, publications, drawings and all means of expression” in matters related to its own definition of “national security.”18 Moreover, the penal code outlined strict punishments—including heavy fines and/or prison sentences—for insulting the president or public officials and for blasphemy.19 The 1971 constitution, meanwhile, gave the president sole discretion for declaring states of emergency and allowed for the continual renewal of states of emergency—i ndeed, successive Mubarak decrees put Egypt in a state of emergency for virtually the entirety of his thirty-year presidency. Finally, the Emergency Law gave the president complete power to censor “all means of expression,” and to shut down printing houses.20 Other articles in the 1971 constitution further restricted press content by tasking the press with preserving “the genuine character of the Egyptian family” (Article 9) and “safeguarding and protecting morals” (Article 12).

The Mubarak-era legal umbrella did include a fair amount of freedomgranting provisions to the news media, contained mostly in the Press Law and the 1971 constitution, which included, for example, Constitutional Article 47 and its guarantee of “freedom of the press.”21 The Mubarak regime was nonetheless able to use its more expansive and powerful array of repressive provisions to effectively cancel out many of the freedoms alluded to in these documents. Journalists who attempted to transgress government-imposed limits were often repressed harshly. Many were sentenced to jail and physically assaulted during Mubarak’s rule.22

Yet, in spite of its repressive legal framework, there was arguably more press freedom during the Mubarak era than during the Sadat or Nasser periods. Much of the increased freedom can be attributed to a 2004 government concession granting private Egyptian citizens the right to own news-publishing licenses,23 which served to open up the Egyptian press system at least to some extent.24 Privately owned news outlets were more likely to challenge the Mubarak government’s narrative. Kenneth Cooper’s study, for example, found that Al-Masry Al-Youm, a privately owned newspaper, devoted more coverage to human rights abuses and corruption (among other topics unfriendly and unflattering to the Mubarak government), than did state-run outlets.25

Still, although the independent press was allowed more latitude than state- run outlets, predetermined red lines prevented these news outlets from going far out of bounds and thereby more substantively fostering a potential democratic turn in Egypt. Another limiting factor to the democratic transition was that wealthy businessmen, relatively friendly to the Mubarak government, owned many of the new private news outlets. These included the moguls Salah Diab, Naguib Sawiris, Mohamed Amin, and Al-Sayid Badawi, all of whom appeared to maintain editorial biases against crossing any red lines.

Egypt’s Mubarak-era press also suffered from a general lack of professionalism, including a relatively low quality of journalism education and only minimal training programs. Many journalists working during this period in Egypt did not have degrees in journalism or j ournalism-related disciplines. Other research suggests that Mubarak-era journalism was plagued by a lack of commitment to the principles of fairness, balance, and objectivity,26 and was rife with nepotism, which prevented merit-based hiring practices.27

It was not until near the end of the Mubarak presidency that social media and blogging influenced Egyptian news and politics in meaningful ways, most markedly during the 2011 uprising that eventually ousted Mubarak. Indeed, internet penetration increased rapidly during the 2000s, and the Mubarak regime struggled to keep pace with the burgeoning online political activism. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that young activists would use blogs and Facebook to organize protests and help spark the 2011 uprising.28

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