Rights groups decry Egyptian media crackdown

July 5, 2013 - 1:35 PM
Mideast Egypt

Egyptians watch Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's announcement on TV at a tea house in Cairo's Zamalek district Wednesday, July 3, 2013. A statement on the Egyptian president's office's Twitter account has quoted Mohammed Morsi as calling military measures "a full coup." The denouncement was posted shortly after the Egyptian military announced it was ousting Morsi, who was Egypt's first freely elected leader but drew ire with his Islamist leanings. The military says it has replaced him with the chief justice of the Supreme constitutional Court, called for early presidential election and suspended the Islamist-backed constitution. (AP Photo/Hiro Komae)

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities shut down four Islamist TV stations, banned the Muslim Brotherhood's newspaper and raided the office of Al-Jazeera's Egypt affiliate in crackdown on media considered sympathetic to ousted President Mohammed Morsi, bringing an outcry Thursday from rights groups.

Rights groups said the moves appeared to be an attempt to intimidate pro-Morsi media and shut off their viewpoints.

Among the shuttered stations was the Misr25 channel, run by the Brotherhood. It went off the air Wednesday night just as it was airing pro-Morsi protesters chanting "Down with military rule" after Egypt's military chief announced that Morsi had been removed.

The military's move came after four days of massive anti-Morsi protests demanding the country's first freely elected president step down.

In a statement, the Brotherhood said the shutdowns were a return to the "repressive" policies of Egypt's "dark ... ages."

The London-based Amnesty International called the shutdowns a "blow to freedom of expression."

A security official said the stations were shut down over suspicions of incitement, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. He did not elaborate.

Notably, no Egyptian stations are currently airing live footage from the main pro-Morsi rally in Cairo, where thousands have been holding a sit-in since Friday.

Also targeted was Al-Jazeera Live Egypt, or Mubasher Misr, an affiliate of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV network. Late Wednesday night, police raided the station's offices, detaining 28 staffers, Al-Jazeera said in a statement Thursday. All have since been released, except the managing director and the broadcast engineer, it said.

The station broadcasts from Qatar, so its signals were not taken off the air, but it has stopped airing live events and its office in Cairo remained shut Thursday. Al-Jazeera said Associated Press Television News was ordered to deny Al-Jazeera channels access to their live services. A local media service company, Cairo News Company, has also been told to withhold access to broadcast equipment.

The Associated Press strongly protested the order to police and government officials. It said it followed the directive because it is bound by local law.

"Our longstanding position is that we cover the news for all of our clients. What is happening in Egypt is a fluid situation, and we are working to satisfy the needs of all of them," Erin Madigan, the news cooperative's senior media relations manager, said in a statement.

A video posted on YouTube recorded the moment security agents entered the studio as it was broadcasting live from Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands were celebrating Morsi's ouster. An agent can be heard in the background saying: "Please come with us" as the guests and staff asked what was going on.

The other stations shut down were Al-Nas, Al-Rahma and Al-Hafez, all connected to the ultraconservative Salafi movement. Over the past year, they have put on the air talk show guests, including hard-line clerics, who have made threats against opposition figures or depicted them as anti-Islam, including one cleric who called for their death. Other talk show hosts and guests have painted Morsi's opponents as dominated by Coptic Chrisitans, hiking sectarian tensions. Their shows were regularly taken to task by prominent satirist Bassem Youssef.

Al-Jazeera, owned by close Brotherhood ally Qatar, has been harassed by the state in the past. Al-Jazeera Egypt Live, set up in March 2011, was raided twice by security forces in September 2011, when the military ruled Egypt directly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Authorities said it was operating without permits.

Al-Jazeera's acting director Mostefa Souag on Thursday appealed for the immediate release of the staff.

"Media offices should not be subject to raids and intimidation," he said. "Regardless of political views, the Egyptian people expect media freedoms to be respected and upheld."

The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists said the crackdown was part of "a worrying series of moves that seemed designed to cut off coverage of pro-Morsi events."

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information called the moves "a clear violation of the law and stifling freedom of expression." The group, based in Cairo, said while some programs aired on these stations carried at times "hate speech" and incited Morsi supporters to violence, that does not justify shutting the stations down.

Amnesty said Egypt's armed forces and the police have a well-documented record of human rights violations that must not be repeated.

"In this time of great tension and with the constitution suspended, it is more important than ever that the military comply with Egypt's obligations under international human rights law," said Salil Shetty, General Secretary of Amnesty International.

Munir Fakhri Abdel-Nur, a member of the National Salvation Front which led the opposition against Morsi, said his group objected to exceptional measures against such stations.

"We must respect due process of law," Abdel-Nur said.

The protesters and opposition parties have accused Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, of mismanaging the country during his one year in office and seeking to monopolize power for his group.