The New York Times - By KAREEM FAHIM and MAYY EL SHEIKH - CAIRO - Several recent moves by government authorities against Egyptian journalists have drawn sharp criticism from the news media and led to accusations that the country’s new Islamist president is willing to tolerate — if not employ — the same heavy-handed tactics used by former President Hosni Mubarak to stifle dissent.
Last week, the authorities suspended a satellite television channel that featured a program whose host is Tawfik Okasha, a strident opponent of President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. On Saturday, the authorities confiscated copies of the daily newspaper Al Dustour, which has published regular condemnations of the Islamist group.
In other cases, editors have been faulted for tamping down criticism of Egypt’s new rulers. And on Wednesday, for the second time in a week, the editor of a state-owned daily newspaper was accused of censoring writers who wrote columns critical of the Brotherhood.
While many people here argue that new media figures like Mr. Okasha went too far — seeming to threaten Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood with violence on a recent show — the government’s actions have revived concerns about the methods the Islamists are willing to use to strengthen their hold on power.
“What’s happening is very serious,” said Hani Shukrallah, the editor of Ahram Online, an English-language site. “We’ve got an organization that is not interested in democratizing the press, or freeing the press,” he said, referring to the Brotherhood. “It’s interested in taking it over.”
The controversy also highlights the challenges Egypt’s new leaders face as they pursue a strategy that alters some features of Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian state, while its foundations remain. Mr. Morsi and his allies say they are bending Egypt’s nature toward justice by appointing ministers and aides with reformist tendencies while purging traditional centers of power — like the military and the Interior Ministry — of the hated old guard.
Mr. Morsi’s detractors accuse him of transforming the government to more resemble the Brotherhood, an inscrutable organization many Egyptians regard with suspicion. He not only preserved the ministry that regulates the media — for many the embodiment of the autocratic state — but also installed a Brotherhood member as its head.
Brotherhood members say it is no simple task to eliminate a ministry that employs thousands. And citing ample evidence, they argue that since the fall of Mr. Mubarak, several news outlets have waged a tireless and incendiary campaign to portray the group as bent on violence and plotting a bloody takeover.
Mr. Okasha’s broadcast last week was typical of the effort, they said. Delivering threats in his ranting style, he called Mr. Morsi an illegitimate president and said, apparently in a reference to the Brotherhood, “I make your blood permissible as well.”
Warning that he would start a conflagration, Mr. Okasha bragged about his abilities to fend off the authorities.
“Beasts and lions come out with me,” he said, apparently referring to his supporters. “Wild beasts, and fierce lions.”
On Saturday, Al Dustour published a strongly worded editorial that took up its entire front page and alleged that the Brotherhood was trying to establish an “emirate” in Egypt. It called for the army to protect Egyptians from “massacres and killing.”
A lawyer for the Brotherhood, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, responded angrily. “This crazy man, Tawfik Okasha, and Al Dustour — is this journalism?” he asked in an interview, “Is this freedom of the media? When has the media ever stopped insulting the Muslim Brotherhood, day and night?”
In some cases, Mr. Morsi himself has struck back at news organizations. Last month, his spokesman, Yasser Ali, said that the president was suing two news outlets, which he did not name, on charges including “defaming the president.” The Brotherhood has also filed complaints, including against Al Dustour, Mr. Abdel Maqsoud said.
The government authorities have moved aggressively in recent days to act on the complaints, though it is not clear on whose orders they are acting.
After Mr. Okasha’s threats, the government branch that regulates satellite channels suspended Al Faraeen, the channel that carries his program. Mr. Okasha was also charged with, among other things, inciting violence.
On Saturday, Interior Ministry officials confiscated 99 copies of Al Dustour. The newspaper’s editor, Islam Afifi, said that the authorities had told him that “citizens” had filed complaints against the paper. The authorities, he said, “were keen on stressing” that the complaining citizens “did not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
Mr. Afifi defended the front-page editorial, saying it simply called for the military to remain as a “guardian of the civil nature of the state.”
“The legal description of publishing crimes is too broad, and the law of publishing needs revision,” he said. “After the January revolution, Egypt is living in a different phase, and criticism is supposed to be permitted to the maximum as long as it doesn’t target a person himself, or his family or his religious beliefs.”
Mr. Afifi and Mr. Okasha have found defenders among people who do not normally support their views. Writing in the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, the writer Alaa al-Aswany said the charges against Mr. Afifi, including insulting the president and stirring strife, “could be brought against any individuals who don’t please President Morsi.” He expressed hope that Mr. Morsi “would stop chasing after journalists in order for Egyptians to be persuaded that he really wants to build real democracy.”
Journalists have also protested what they said were flawed criteria used to choose top editors for state-owned newspapers, saying those selected were either sympathetic to the Brotherhood or pliant holdovers from the Mubarak government.
Al-Akhbar’s new editor, Mohammed Hassan el-Banna, has come under fire from colleagues twice since he assumed his post a week ago. Columnists said they were censored for criticizing the Brotherhood, but Mr. Banna said that one case was a matter of space: the paper had cut down the number of editorial pages. The columnist Abla El-Roweini told Ahram Online that she was asked to tone down her critique of the Brotherhood. Mr. Banna responded that he had no problem with the criticism, but that Ms. Roweini had refused to “change a phrase in an article I personally couldn’t accept.”
The phrase, he said, was, “Journalism has worn a veil.”