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State Department Blasts Egyptian Press Clampdown

State Department acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell let it be known yesterday that the administration has been monitoring the Egyptian government’s treatment of journalists, and is concerned:

First of all, on Egypt, we are deeply concerned by the growing trend of efforts to punish and deter political expression in Egypt. Numerous individuals, including journalists, bloggers and activists have been detained, and some are being charged and put on trial for allegedly defaming government figures. Such charges do not conform to Egypt’s international obligations, do not reflect international standards regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, particularly in a democratic society, and represent a step backward for Egypt’s democratic transition. We call on the Government of Egypt to publicly speak out against this trend and to protect the essential freedoms of expression and assembly as it has publicly committed to do. This is the way to ensure that Egypt’s democratic transition continues to progress in a way that meets the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

In its report on freedom of the press, Freedom House described the dynamics of declining press freedom in Egypt:

Media polarization increased in the wake of the June election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as president, with outlets aligned into pro- or anti-Islamist factions, government favoritismtoward pro-Islamist outlets, and official pressure placed on state-owned media. Moreover, the explosion of new, independent outlets in 2011 proved difficult to sustain economically; a number of outlets were forced to close or cut back, contributing to the continued prominence of state-controlled media.

This month criminal charges were filed against the editor and managing editor of El-Watan newspaper, which takes a firm line against Egypt’s Islamist government. The move was prompted by a decision from the paper’s editor – a Christian – to publish an interview with deposed Western-backed president Hosni Mubarak.

Arguably the most-recognized crackdown on free speech came with the arrest earlier this year of satirist Bassem Youssef. Youssef, considered “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” hosts the satirical news show “El Bernameg” or “The Program” and claims an audience of 30 million . According to an interview with Foreign Policy, Youssef sees himself as a symbol of the “defense of freedom of opinion against religious dogmatism”. His arrest under charges of “insulting President Mohamed Morsi and Islam,” “spreading atheism,” and “insulting the state of Pakistan and causing tensions in its relations with Egypt” brought international attention to Cairo’s press crackdown.

Another prominent activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was also recently arrested. There is an overarching motive for the crackdown:

Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the legal targeting of government opponents is likely to continue. “The Muslim Brotherhood believes that Egypt’s problems are due to a broad conspiracy against its rule,” he says. “It is therefore cracking down on its critics, rather than working to restore stability by including them in the political process.”

“The point in going after top activists like Alaa and top media figures like Bassem Youssef,” he adds, “is to make lesser-known activists and media figures afraid.”

More journalists have been imprisoned in the year since Morsi took power than during Mubarak’s three-decade rule. Morsi had promised that his Muslim Brotherhood-linked administration would safeguard the freedom of the press.

[Photo: DanthemanHibiki / YouTube]