Uncomfortable truths

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

Philip Whitfield

October 26 2011

CAIRO: Censorship’s logical end is when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads, wrote George Bernard Shaw. The degree of restriction on political debate before parliamentary elections in a few weeks’ time is a measure of Egypt’s freedom.

The media is caught in a conundrum. On the one hand editors understand the red lines not to be crossed: disclosing intelligence or directly criticizing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The penal code’s statutes forbid opinions that usurp national unity. Article 98, amended five years ago specifically states those exploiting religion to promote extremist ideologies to stir up sedition or endangering national unity will be imprisoned or fined.

Last week Ayman Mansour was sent down for three years for creating a Facebook wall that the judge said expressed derogatory opinions about Islam that threaten national unity.

There’s a ticklish legal point here. Should a secular court claim jurisdiction over what is and what is not derogatory to a faith?

Presumably if an Egyptian blogger started derogating Christianity he would be arrested under Article 98 for stirring up sedition, disparaging or holding in contempt a divine religion.

Thousands more might be put in the dock for exploiting religion in order to promote extremist ideologies by word of mouth.

And, for all I know, vice versa. I’m sure some Christians have made a few ill-chosen remarks about Muslims.

The point is: freedom of speech laws as written should not be on the stature book after the revolution.
God forbid that anything like the Qadaffi quandary should be faced in Egypt. Pictures of Qadaffi being frog-marched out of a drainpipe, then lying dead were on the Internet within two hours of its happening.

In my reporting days the BBC would not have broken internal rules carrying the footage. 1. There was no confirmation the next of kin had been informed. 2. The images were too distressing to show an audience before the 9 o’clock news.

I faced the first dilemma when I received tip-off that Lord Mountbatten had been killed when his boat was blown up off the west coast of Ireland. With a minute or two to go before the 1 o’clock news, I was able to reassure a scrupulous newsdesk that the Queen had been informed.

The BBC did decide to carry footage of the aftermath following massacre of dozens of people after a bomb went off in the center of Belfast. Police were shown putting body parts into plastic bags.

There was uproar mainly because the footage was aired at 6 o’clock, when children would be watching.

In its own way, Egypt is wrestling with similar issues of self-censorship.

Yosri Fouda decided to take his TV show Akher Kalam off the air indefinitely to protest against what he called relentless censorship efforts. Fouda was due to host Alaa El-Aswany, a staunch critic of SCAF to comment on the interview by two Egyptian army generals, Mahmoud Hegazy and Mohamed El-Assar.

According to Al Ahram speculation was rife that Fouda was pressured by SCAF. Neither confirming nor denying, Fouda said he could not bear obligatory censorship.

It’s naïve to suggest pressure is not exerted in other societies to restrict criticism. It goes on all the time in America, Britain and other so-called free societies. American politicians are loath to upset the media fearing its clout. Recently British political leaders have been exposed cozying up to the likes of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch to curry favor.
It’s a measure of the repressive nature of societies such as China and Russia that they crack down on dissident voices. Saudi Arabia rarely grants visas to western journalists and doesn’t allow them to set up offices.

Egypt has been more acquiescent, even before the revolution. But more needs to be done, particularly in the pre-election period.

Mark Twain said censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it. In plain speak, those who understand the tough issues should be allowed to chew the fat.

In 1689 England’s Bill of Rights granted freedom of speech in Parliament. A hundred years later freedom of speech was extended by the French revolutionaries in their Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, affirming the free communication of ideas and opinions to be one of the most precious of the rights of man.

In 1948 the United Nations adopted Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Those rights have passed into international law today. Freedom of speech, or the freedom of expression is recognized in international and regional human rights law.

However reinterpreted freedom of speech recognizes the arguments propounded by the author of Paradise Lost, John Milton. He said freedom of speech is a multi-faceted right that includes not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but to seek information and ideas; to receive information and ideas and to impart information and ideas.

Rightly, freedom of speech is commonly subject to limitations, such as defamation, obscenity and incitement to commit a crime.

The philosopher, university administrator and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn who died in 1964, was an Englishman much revered in America. He said democracy would not be true to its essential ideal if those in power were able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism.

Democracy is self-government of the people by the people. For such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary, Meiklejohn said.

In order to be knowledgeable, there should be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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