Morsi 'is sacrificing free speech' to prevent criticism: Egyptian media

Egypt's prosecutor-general yesterday banned Tawfik Okasha, the head of a satellite channel, and Islam Afifi, the editor-in-chief of an independent newspaper, from travel amid allegations of incitement to kill the president and fuelling sectarian strife.

CAIRO // A confrontation betweem Mohammed Morsi's government and Egypt's independent media has prompted concerns that the president is willing to sacrifice freedom of speech to prevent criticism of his government.

Mr Morsi's presidency has been hampered by the influential military, which has made a series of moves to try curtail both his power and that of the Islamist-dominated parliament. But Mr Morsi has shown his teeth in recent weeks by targeting elements of the media and by firing several officials after militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards in Sinai.

Egypt's prosecutor-general yesterday banned Tawfik Okasha, the head of a satellite channel, and Islam Afifi, the editor-in-chief of an independent newspaper, from travel amid allegations of incitement to kill the president and fuelling sectarian strife, the state-run Mena news agency reported.

Hisham Kassem, a veteran publisher in Egypt and political commentator, said the moves showed that the new president and the group he hails from - the Muslim Brotherhood - were willing to use repressive tactics that were a mainstay of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

"These actions show, if anything, that they are jittery and really worried about their image," he said. "The first thing they should have done is nullify the media laws of Mubarak, but instead they are using them to crack down on political opponents."

Authorities removed copies of Saturday's edition of Al-Dustour, which is edited by Afifi, from the streets because of an editorial on its front page that warned of the Muslim Brotherhood "emirate" taking over Egypt and calling for Egyptians to join with the military to fight back against encroaching Islamism.

Mena said Al-Dustour was accused in several lawsuits of "harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law".

Authorities also shut down the Fareen television station, owned by Mr Okasha, after the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party claimed the station was being used to incite violence against the Brotherhood "on behalf of the ousted Mubarak regime".

Mr Okasha is famous for his lengthy and invective tirades against the rise of the Brotherhood.

Mr Kassem said the moves showed a lack of political expertise on the part of the government. By seizing copies of the paper, which he said was one of the lower circulation dailies in Egypt, the government had drawn more attention to the editorial.

"After they did this, the editorial has spread everywhere. If they hadn't taken the papers away, it would hardly have been read," Mr Kassem said.

Mr Morsi only appointed only five members of the Muslim Brotherhood to his cabinet this month but one of them was Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, the new information minister. His appointment - along with August 5 comments from the new investment minister that satellite stations that "spread rumours" would not have their licences renewed - has alarmed Egypt's independent media.

Mr Abdel-Maqsoud has denied any political purpose to his appointment, saying in a statement on the Muslim Brotherhood's website on August 6 that "it is not my objective at the Ministry of Information to transform Egyptian television into a mouthpiece of government or other executive institute propaganda".

"However, together we will aim to fulfil our role, as mass media, to participate, control, contribute and follow-up, all in the service of public interest."

Editors of independent newspapers and high-ranking members of the Press Syndicate - a union for journalists - have decried the recent attacks on the media.

Last Thursday, three independent newspapers ran white boxes on their editorial pages to protest against what they say are the Brotherhood's attempts to quell free speech for political purposes.

"The space is white to protest against attempts by the Brotherhood to impose its control over the press and media belonging to the Egyptian people," wrote Al-Watan next to the white space on its editorial page, according to Agence France-Presse.

They also criticised efforts by the Shura Council - the upper house of parliament that was dominated by Islamist groups - to use its powers to appoint editors of state newspapers to rid the media of critics.

With high expectations for the new government, some analysts see Mr Morsi's free speech crackdown as providing fuel to critics of Islamist governance.

"After the elections, we were thinking that Morsi should have the chance to rule as president, especially because he came speaking about democracy and stability, economic development, and security," said Makram Ahmed Mohammed, a former head of the Press Syndicate. "But now what happened is that put us in a dark tunnel and we cannot see the end of it."


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* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Bloomberg News