This past week my program had a meeting with an author, poet, and journalist who works for Al-Ahram, the major pro-government newspaper in Egypt. We had an interesting conversation with him, and he shared some of his poetry with us. I bought a copy of his most recent collection of poems titled Coffee and Chocolate.
We asked him questions about his personal interests, about being a journalist, and mostly about media censorship in Egypt, which is always a hot topic. A number of journalists have been put in jail recently for “slandering,” “threatening national security,” etc., and I think Americans are especially interested in media censorship because of the large degree of freedom of expression in the United States. So, when asked if there is censorship of the media in Egypt, our guest flatly responded “no.” He then explained that there are three lines the media does not cross in Egypt. They are:
1. Criticism of the president
2. Criticism of judges
3. Criticism of the army
To me, of course, this sounds like plain old censorship. In addition, criticism of religious officials, such as the Mufti of Al-Azhar, is also not acceptable, as journalists have been put in jail for criticizing him as well.
What I thought was especially interesting was that he explained that the real censorship in Egypt is societal. People censor themselves for political, religious, or cultural reasons. This makes a lot of sense, as the effects of the political status quo here and the consequences for altering it are established to the extent that people usually do not need to be told when to shut up. They know because it has been this way for a long time. (As a side note, Egypt has been under “Emergency Law” since former President Sadat was assassinated in 1981). In addition, there is cultural and religious self-censorship as Egypt is a culturally intense and religiously conservative society. As an example, many women do not report when they have been sexually assaulted as it is seen as shameful for the family.
In any case, our guest does work for Al-Ahram, and certainly knows the limits on his freedom of speech, so I understand his self-censorship and unwillingness to admit that this country censors its media.